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.
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.