Revision, assessment and the lies we tell.

revision

In December I wrote a short piece for TES suggesting that schools should stop laying on after school and holiday revision sessions for pupils (Schools must say “no” to out of hours revision, for the good of the profession). My argument was based on applying the economic model of common resources, put forward by Hardin, to GCSE grades. These grades are a common resource that we are all competing for. If one school does something to increase their advantage (however marginal) we are all forced to do the same or risk losing out. They do revision classes at Easter, we do the same. There is always a little more we can do but this is not a sustainable way to manage a scarce resource. We need a “limits to growth“.

With the Easter revision season upon us, TES decided to re-release the piece and it has led to some very interesting discussions. It would seem that the vast majority of teachers and senior leaders agree that schools shouldn’t be offering holiday revision sessions (or at least a vast majority of those taking part in a not very scientific poll) .

The case for the defense 

There have though been a number of people speaking out in defense of holiday revision sessions. Their main points appear to be:

  • They help the most disadvantaged pupils who may not be able to revise independently
  • They make a massive difference to the grades pupils get, and therefore their life chances.
  • It is up to the individual teacher whether they do them.
  • Like it or not, schools are judged on these grades. (This is the least popular defense).

The case for the prosecution 

I am starting with the premise that schools are primarily about education for its own sake. We also need to ensure that pupils are able to use this education to fulfill their potential whatever that should be.

GCSEs are a key into post-16 education. Almost all colleges and sixth forms ask for a 5+ result in a clutch of subjects. It would seem to be the case then that it is worth putting in extra effort to help pupils who are at risk of missing this important grade. Beyond this it all becomes a little murkier.

What difference does it actually make to a pupil whether they get a 5 or a 6? A 6 or a 7? I would suggest that it will matter far more to the school. What matters to the pupil is getting into college to do their choice of course (usually a grade 5) and developing the deep knowledge that comes over years of careful study alongside the independent study skills necessary to succeed at A level. This isn’t going to come with a few extra hours of school during the holidays. It comes from a well planned and well delivered curriculum over 11 years alongside whatever support they can get at home. The GCSEs will then test their ability in that subject and they will get the grade they deserve. Whatever that is.

Which brings us to our second point. How much difference can an extra few hours of teaching in each subject really make? The gains are going to be marginal at best. If I could do something magical enough to make a difference to their grade in three hours one holiday morning, I’d make time for it during the term when all pupils could benefit from it. If it genuinely made such a powerful difference to a pupils education to come in during the holidays then surely we would stop it being optional? We would have a moral duty to do so. The fact we offer it to whoever chooses to turn up speaks volumes about the difference we actually think it will make. It also puts a nail in the coffin of the argument that it is down to the individual teacher – if it really makes a difference it can’t be left to individual teacher choice. If it doesn’t, why are we doing it?

The point on disadvantage is a knotty little one and a point I have a lot of sympathy for. We do need to find a way to iron out the advantages that some are born into. I just don’t believe this is how we do it. These pupils haven’t suddenly become disadvantaged. They were in need of just as much support to catch up in Year 7 as they are now. And yet… where are the Easter support classes for them in every other year? If there are gaps that need closing, why are we waiting until the last possible minute unless we are in fact actually guided by fear of not being seen to keep up with others doing the same?

The tail wags the dog

Assessment shouldn’t be leading curriculum but this is what fear of GCSE results seem to be doing to schools. Fear of falling behind everyone else means we take the eye off genuine education and start telling ourselves little lies to justify what we do. Somehow revision classes can be:

  • vitally important and yet left to whoever turns up
  • the differences in the grade a pupil gets and yet GCSEs are still a good measure of an education that takes 11 years
  • down to the individual teachers and yet necessary for the most disadvantaged
  • all about helping pupils close the gap and yet not needed until the end of their education.

I don’t doubt the altruistic motives of those teachers who give up their time to do these sessions but I do doubt the motive in the culture behind it. These holiday sessions very rarely happened before high stakes accountability. I took my GCSEs in 1997 and had a few lessons of revision before the exams, a couple of after school maths sessions, and that was it. Talking to others who took their exams at about the same time they say much the same.

Are we really suggesting that it is purely a coincidence that the rise of out of hours revision came with a rise in high stakes accountability? Do we really believe that if this high stakes accountability stopped schools would continue to open during the holidays? Individual teachers might, but the system in which they operate would soon stop supporting it.

Conclusion

We need some intellectual honesty in this discussion. Individual teachers offer to give up their time because they are kind and wonderful people who go the extra mile day after day for their pupils. The problem is that there is always another mile to go and if you go there we all have to come with you. Whilst the motivation of individual teachers is pure I doubt the motivation of a system that takes advantage of it. Schools are in competition for grades and we know that there will always be decisions governed not by rational action but by fear (look at mocksteds).

There are no easy answers to this problem but it can start by us being honest with ourselves.

  • If there is something we can do, that we think will have a powerful difference, lets do it in school time for every pupil who would benefit.
  • If we think that disadvantages pupils need more support, including support in the holidays to catch up, lets give them that support from the start and not wait until the very end.
  • Lets stop pretending that schools aren’t as invested, and sometimes more invested, in pupils getting the highest possible grade.
  • Let us remember that what we are giving pupils is an excellent education over 11 years. The exam at the end of this should test that education. The test isn’t the thing.

Most importantly, lets stop letting the tail of assessment wag the education dog.

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11 thoughts on “Revision, assessment and the lies we tell.

  1. Couple of things. Firstly, the actual grade does matter,it’s not just about getting a 5. Before teaching, I spent 14 years in corporate life and must have interviewed around 50 candidates for jobs over that time. Nearly all of those candidates were graduate level, many with second degrees. But I always looked at their maths and English GCSE. The difference between A*, A, B, C gave me some important objective information on the candidate.
    Secondly, the last few weeks of work running up to the exams can definitely make a difference to the grade achieved. And I know that revision sessions in the holidays will, for the disadvantaged in particular, make the difference between revision being done and nothing being done. The two+ weeks over Easter is a critical time.
    Finally, in my school, holiday revision sessions are not optional. Yr 11s are told from the end of Year 10, that this is a critical year, that their holidays will not be the same as other years but that they finish in mid June and will have the longest summer holiday ever. The vast majority of year 11s attend, even though there is little we can do if they don’t. They understand that teachers are giving up their time voluntarily and although they don’t say it, are basically appreciative of the extra help they are getting and feel a sense of loyalty and therefore turn up.
    My main issue with the practice is the “voluntary” nature of it and how this plays out with teachers. I have done holiday sessions willingly but have also said no when I have had family commitments. Although there has never been any explicit pressure from SLT to be there, I have felt pretty awkward in a Year 11 assembly when they are told which teachers are running holiday sessions and my name is not on the slide. I’m not sure of the best solution to this as I know there is little money to pay teachers to do them.
    I definitely do draw the line at Saturday morning sessions, however, which some teachers have been running since January. That really is going to start impacting on teacher wellbeing and therefore on the learning of all other year groups. The odd half-day in the middle of a two week holiday, well that’s not too bad…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks – food for thought.
      Making them non-optional is interesting. You are essentially then just extended the school year for Year 11 then? That seems very different from holiday revision sessions. If it is voluntary for staff, how do you staff these sessions?

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      • Each teacher decides whether or not to run a session and if they do, then the students from that class must attend. This does place considerable pressure on teachers to run sessions. Personally I don’t worry about such pressure and if I have family commitments in the holidays they come first. But I imagine for newer teachers they feel like they don’t have much choice.

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  2. Well argued Mark. I do have some issues – a) grades do matter to students beyond entry to college. A 7 is better than a 6 in its own right; eg my son would be more disappointed in any low grades than his school is. b) holiday revision has been going for ever – I ran an Easter revision course in 1992. It’s not that new c) I think it’s more about confidence than knowledge per se – it keeps contact with students who feel they need it and helps keep them on track. No harm in that. For sure it might have grown too big but there is a level of support that seems normal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Tom.
      I am sure grades do matter to pupils – they are rightfully proud of good grades when they reflect what they know and can do. What type of school were you working in in 1992? I am struggling to find people in state comps who did this.

      Let me ask you this – do you honestly think schools would still do holiday sessions without high stakes accountability?

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      • I was at Holland Park School. State comp. Offered it – and students came. I think we need to remember that accountability isn’t the only reason driving people to want students to do well. For many years as a physics teacher, accountability pressure was practically zero; but we had a zeal about getting student to get good GCSEs and A levels and revision was an issue for many of them. I was motivated by getting good results for my class – to feel good about the reflected glory no doubt! – but it wasn’t about external pressure. It might be now. Ideally you wouldn’t need it but often we’re dealing with deficits – gaps in syllabus coverage etc. I don’t think teachers should be obliged to give up holiday time but at the same time I think schools should recognise the disadvantage chasm that widens during the revision period. (My OH just printed off some practice questions for my son from ExamPro! )

        Liked by 1 person

      • I know Holland Park – visited last year. A very interesting school 😎
        I love the zeal for excellent results (but would prefer to see it put as “excellent education”) but remain unconvinced that holiday sessions are the way to achieve either. Probably need some real research in the area.

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  3. One of my concerns is that the more we offer students in the way of support, the less need they feel to work on their own, in their own time. As I said to my Year 11s last term, my lessons and the revision sessions the department runs (term time only) are not sufficient for anyone to obtain the grade they need. Indepentent work and effort are essential. Lots of revision sessions can make students too dependent on us and what we provide and not reflective enough about where the specefic gaps in their own knowledge and understanding are.

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  4. If the purpose of these sessions is to help reduce anxiety then I have my doubts. I used to do them at A level, but stopped when it become obvious that some students were simply using them to take notes for sessions that they had failed to do previously. By doing the diagnostic work in class and lots of practise tests (self assessed/peer assessed) there is little need. Interventions can then be made with those students who are felling behind. It also gives them a better sense of their actual grades and what they need to do as individuals to move up.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We’ve not run subject specific revision sessions this year (or for the last few) but have opened up our library for students who want to come in and work. Some of our students have chaotic home situations where any notion of independent study being able to happen in a calm environment is pie in the sky. We have a couple of members of staff who are paid to come in and supervise that all is OK – it may be that they help individual students here or there as necessary but, otherwise, they are getting on with their own work.

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