The Perse School

Two wishes for 2018

Whilst Brexit continues to dominate the political landscape, politicians have little time or energy for anything else. Political neglect is not necessarily a bad thing, and after a period of significant change in education some ‘quiet time’ to let the many reforms (most introduced by Michael Gove) bed down will be beneficial. But just in case anybody from the Department of Education reads this blog, here are two ideas which could bring benefits in 2018 at no cost to the government.

1. Require all exam boards to use item based marking.
Concerns about the accuracy of public exam marking and grading rumble on. Just before Christmas Ofqual released data showing that nearly a quarter of the 301,920 GCSE grades challenged by candidates were changed on review. An error rate of 25% for public exams on which significant employment, education and school performance decisions rest is high. Some variability in marking is inevitable. Two teachers marking the same script will rarely give the same marks for the same things, especially in subjective disciplines like English where there is no right or wrong answer. There will always be slightly more lenient and slightly more severe examiners and there will always be acceptable professional differences in academic judgements.

Item based marking is a check on such variability, as instead of one examiner marking an entire paper, scripts are divided up by item (an individual question or several related part questions) with different examiners marking different items. Item based marking thus minimises the impact of any leniency or severity because it represents an ‘average’ of a number of different examiners marking. It also facilitates more accurate and consistent marking, as examiners assess the same item many times and thus perfect their marking skills. This is even more so when examiners’ expertise can be linked to specific questions so that, for example, the medieval historian only marks those items which relate to medieval history and does not assess answers for topics with which they may be less familiar.

2. Consider restrictions on mobile phone use by children
Mobile phones are a ‘double edged’ sword. They bring real benefits to learning (provided the results of search engine enquiries are reviewed critically), they can improve personal organisation, enhance social lives, and aid family logistics. But mobile phones can also be addictive distractions, whilst inappropriate posts on social media do harm. Schools are increasingly spending time dealing with problems of poor online behaviour. Inappropriate, upsetting or offensive posts made off the school site and outside school hours inevitably causes problems in school as they compromise peer group relations. When I began teaching a quarter of a century ago cyber problems did not exist, while now they are a major source of pupil and parent upset and a significant drain on school resources.

One way of balancing the positive and negative of mobile phone usage would be to consider either voluntary or compulsory restrictions on their use by children. Schools spend a lot of time teaching pupils about responsible online behaviour. Most pupils report that they know what they should and shouldn’t do. However, pupils also say that they have done things they knew were wrong online, because they couldn’t stop themselves in the heat of the moment. Children do make poor choices; with an immature pre-frontal cortex their judgement can fail such that good kids do bad things. Unfortunately bad things on the internet can be seen by many people, and can stay in cyber space indefinitely. The consequences of an internet mistake can be significant and long lasting.

Children can make poor choices at any time of the day or night, but experience suggests the likelihood of making poor choices increases as the day goes on and reaches its peak late in the evening and in the privacy of children’s bedrooms. Many of the examples of inappropriate online behaviour that we deal with have their origins in nocturnal social media exchanges. Most adults have the judgement and restraint needed not to press the send button on an intemperate late night email, but instead review it again in the calmer light of morning. Children are less likely to have such restraint and judgement, and more likely to send / post at night and regret it the next morning.

So perhaps the answer is voluntary or compulsory mobile phone restrictions for children. I recommend that all mobile phones (those belonging to children and adults) are left downstairs to re-charge overnight so that they cannot get in the way of a good night’s sleep which is essential for wellbeing and learning. However, I recognise that enforcing such a rule can be a source of conflict with some children and that some parents would prefer to avoid such nightly arguments. Perhaps in these cases mobile phone companies might like to introduce a children’s ‘eight to eight’ contract (or similar hours) with phones only having emergency telephone use outside these times. Such enforced social media downtime might help children relax and sleep (knowing that nobody was online and they weren’t missing anything), improve family life, and reduce the risk of late night judgement errors that can lead to significant and long lasting harm.

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