I imagine most readers know at least the outline of the recent changes to the place of non-examined assessment (NEA) in Computer Science (CS). In short, Ofqual gave notice to schools in November 2017 that they were initiating a consultation on the place of NEA in CS following reports that ‘answers’ to the NEA were widely available on the web. Schools were advised that the core of the consultation was that the NEA would no longer count towards the final grade. At the time of the announcement many y11s following the course had already finished work on the NEA, many others were in the midst of doing it and the rest were soon to start; I think it’s fair to say that the announcement was met with, to say the least, frustration by both teachers and students.
In January the results of the consultation were announced with Ofqual saying
The responses have not persuaded us there is a better model to that we proposed in the consultation.
That model being, in short, that students taking their GCSE computer science exams in 2018 and 2019 should continue to complete one of the tasks set by their exam board for the qualification, but that the task would not contribute to the final exam grade.
I think this development is worth digging into as it’s not hard to imagine possible knock-on effects for D&T.
In particular, two aspects seem to be worth exploring: the first, and obvious one, is whether NEA more generally is under threat, the second is the implied expansion of the role of the awarding organisations from describing what students will be assessed on in a particular specification to detailing how they should be taught.
Should awarding organisations tell teachers how to teach?
Taking the second of these first, it seems to me to be an unwelcome development that a teacher should be placed in the position of being required to include a (non-assessed) task set by an awarding organisation in their scheme of work. This is what is set out:
Schools must give their students an opportunity to undertake the non-exam assessment tasks set by their exam boards and set 20 hours aside in the timetable to allow them to undertake the task. Exam boards must receive from each school a statement confirming they made such provision. This would make sure that all students have had an opportunity to develop the skills and apply their knowledge and understanding of the subject and go some way to making sure all students have a similar experience, regardless of whether they had yet to start, were part way through, or had completed the task when the changed arrangements were introduced.
Not only that, but, prompted by responses to the consultation suggesting “that if schools were required to confirm they had given all of their students the opportunity to complete the task some would, effectively, fabricate any such a statement“, Ofqual is now requiring awarding organisations
to divert the resources they would otherwise have put into moderating teachers’ marking to ensuring all students (are) given the required opportunities to compete (sic) the task. […] a school or college that was found to have made a false statement about the opportunities would be investigated by the relevant exam board under its malpractice procedures.
This seems extraordinary to me. Do we really want the awarding organisations deciding for teachers how they should organise elements of their teaching? With a malpractice threat if they fail to do so?
It looks very much like the thin end of a potentially very thick wedge. And if you think that’s paranoid then note that the Ofqual document points out
There are other GCSE subjects for which schools are required to make a statement confirming students have been given an opportunity to undertake an essential element of the qualification, such as in GCSE geography.
So, it’s actually a wedge with a thin end in Geography that’s now being hammered further into the curriculum.
Responses from teachers of CS seem to have ranged from ‘makes no difference to me because of course I would include a task like this – in fact I include lots of such tasks as a core part of my teaching’, to ‘my kids hated the task and found it very demotivating; I have other ways to teach the material that work better in my setting’. And that, of course, is the point; teachers should be free to use their professional judgement to decide how best to prepare their particular students, in their particular setting, for a GCSE.
Is there a general threat to NEA?
Turning to the possible threat to coursework, it’s worth making clear that this change of rules was, ostensibly, prompted by growing evidence of malpractice
During autumn 2017, we saw evidence that the rules for the GCSE (9 to 1) computer science non-exam assessment tasks were being broken. The tasks had been released by the exam boards on 1 September 2017, for completion by students taking their exams in summer 2018. The tasks should not have been discussed outside of the controlled conditions under which they were completed. However, the tasks, which students had to complete by March 2018, quickly appeared, in full or part, on-line and were widely discussed, advice offered and solutions developed. The speed with which the tasks appeared on-line and the number of times the discussions and solutions were viewed threatened the integrity of this aspect of the qualification.
One can understand Ofqual’s concern. However, two other factors appear to have been in play and these have not been as widely discussed. The first of these is that, because CS counts as a science in the government’s accountability measures
Our decision, taken in 2014, to allow non- exam assessment in the qualification was finely balanced.
A cynic might wonder if they were looking for an excuse to remove the NEA.
The second is that Ofqual
heard from stakeholders that some teachers were finding the non-exam assessments difficult to manage (they were not permitted to discuss the tasks with colleagues outside of their own centre, for example).
In fact, the consultation quotes the Royal Society report After the reboot: computing education in UK schools in saying
Finally, many teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland raised the new Non Examined Assessment arrangements for GCSE computer science qualifications as a cause for concern. These teachers felt that the new rules on GCSE Non-Examined Assessment (NEA) are onerous, and consume a disproportionate amount of teacher time and teaching opportunities in the computer science GCSE
I think one has to take these teachers’ views at face value. If the NEA had been kept one might have had sympathy while arguing that the specification is what it is, and teachers have little choice but to work with it – perhaps while lobbying for considered change in the future. But it seems extraordinary to use this as argument to support eliminating the NEA while keeping exactly the same (‘onerous’ but non-assessed) task in place!
More broadly, we know that when the GCSEs were revised the initial position of the government was that coursework was to be removed from all qualifications. It seemed that in an argument between validity and reliability in assessment the reliability of exams was being set against the validity, for many aspects of many subjects, of coursework. One suspects that a strong driver for this is that GCSEs are now as much about measuring schools’ performance as that of pupils; the quote above from Ofqual about the place of CS as a ‘science’ subject supports this view.
So, it was seen as a victory when some subjects fought for and regained NEA. Though one senior examiner pointed out to me that the fact that Art and Design had gained 100% coursework could simply be seen as a measure of the (low) value placed on the subject by ministers at the time. By extension, D&T’s 50% NEA might also be seen as a measure of the subjects slightly higher low worth.
(Just to be clear, I am definitely not arguing that the way to raise the profile of D&T in ministers’ eyes is to relinquish coursework. We’ve made the case for Re-building D&T that developing both technological capability and technological perspective are at the heart of the subject – and you can’t measure all the dimensions of capability through a written exam.)
HMCI Amanda Spielman made some comments about science practical work in a speech to the ASE in January that may be relevant.
Where we still have a live and worthwhile debate is on the role of practical science in the curriculum. This point is demonstrated in John Holman’s Gatsby report on ‘Good practical science’, which I believe is being discussed a great deal at this conference. His report identifies 5 purposes of practical science: to teach the principles of scientific enquiry, improve understanding of theory, to teach practical skills, to motivate and engage students and to develop teamwork skills. His preliminary survey finds that teachers rate the use of practical science for teaching scientific enquiry and practical skills as the least important of those 5. They rate motivation as the most important.
But we should be uncomfortable with the idea of practical science being mainly about motivation. Yes, children should find experiments fun and motivating, but making sure children finish practical tasks having learned something or having consolidated what they have just been taught, is most important. And we know that there are limits to the extent to which skills such as teamwork and enquiry can be developed in isolation.
More generally I think we are still learning what can and can’t be achieved through practical science work, and how this varies at different ages. I am watching this space with great interest. But we do know that scientific understanding is cumulative, and so children need knowledge and understanding before they can create and test hypotheses. Good schools understand this.
It’s hard not to read in between the lines that there is some suspicion at high levels in the education system of the educational value of practical work. Especially as the speech gives no weight to the other, more knowledge-focussed, purposes for practical work. If so, it’s not hard to see how this might reveal itself in suspicion of the value of assessing aspects of practical work in NEAs.
As one would expect, Holman’s report is far subtler than the above suggests and the quoted finding was based on the views of expert witnesses (not teachers) outside England. So, the report certainly doesn’t claim that science teachers in England do in fact value the motivational purpose of practical science more highly than other purposes.
Implications for D&T NEA
It is absolutely clear that keeping an NEA element of assessment in D&T is fundamental to reflecting the nature of the subject (developing technological capability and perspective); if an aim of our subject is developing designer-maker capability then that needs to be assessed and the only valid way to assess it is through some form of NEA. In my view, the current approach of using a Contextual Challenge offers real strengths here. Although the challenge is set by the awarding organisations the context has to be explored by candidates to identify an issue/problem that they consider significant and worthy of responding to via designing and making. This is a far cry from responding to a design brief set by an awarding organisation. It gives both choice of the activity and ownership of the activity to the candidate and this should enable young people to develop a sense of designerly responsibility in the way they respond, as previously explored by David.
If the NEA was removed it would be inevitable that what is taught would evolve to match the demands of the written exam (however good the intentions of teachers, in the end accountability is king), and that would mean, at the very least, a diminished focus on practical capability. It would rapidly become a different subject, even if the name stuck.
The cynic in me is genuinely concerned that there is pressure ‘from above’ to minimise NEA. If so, we can assume that any evidence of malpractice will be seized on enthusiastically as an excuse to eliminate NEA – as we have just seen happen to CS; it’s not clear to me that, in the case of CS, any real effort was put into looking for ways to reduce malpractice, which would have been the case if the NEA was highly valued.
I do think that a Contextual Challenge will be much harder to game than the CS NEA was; while it’s not hard to envisage that many students’ solutions to a programming challenge in CS could look very similar (in fact it might be hard for them not to look similar), it’s very hard to imagine a similar situation emerging in response to a contextual challenge.
So, to avoid the possibility of losing our NEA, with its particular framing as a Contextual Challenge, as a community of practice we need:
- To be on the ball about identifying attempts to game the Contextual Challenges.
- To ensure that, if (or when – our young people are marvellously inventive when they need to be…) we do find evidence of cheating of this kind, we are very open about it and proactive in identifying solutions before an unwanted solution is imposed.
- To make it the normal expectation that the artefacts that emerge in response to a Contextual Challenge will vary widely as pupils answer in their own ways the design questions that arise. Assuming that children in KS3 are also presented with open design challenges as a part of their learning journey towards GCSE, then we should have a similar expectation of diversity in outcomes.
- To make sure that all D&T teachers are properly prepared to help pupils work in this newly open approach; this would be a very useful focus of support from the awarding bodies.
As ever comments are welcome.