Thursday, March 05, 2009

Leading British school is first to ditch all government middle-school exams for tougher rival

Dumbed down government curriculum being abandoned

A top independent school has become the first in the country to ditch GCSEs wholesale in favour of a more 'challenging' international alternative. Manchester Grammar is to drop the GCSEs from September in almost all subjects and switch to the International GCSE, which is modelled on the old O-level and takes the focus away from coursework. The switch will heighten fears that a two-tier national exam system is emerging as new qualifications challenge GCSEs and A-levels.

Other private school heads are considering a similar move, with one describing GCSEs as 'pap' and 'baby food' for the most able pupils. The trigger for Manchester Grammar's decision was a Government overhaul of GCSE courses starting in September, which will split courses into bite-size modules that pupils can resit as they go along.

Dr Christopher Ray, Manchester Grammar's high master, said the heads of individual subject departments at his school had almost unanimously decided to move to IGCSEs. 'The difficulty that we have got is that the entire GCSE syllabus, if you want to use a metaphor, is rather like getting able students through a combination of dressage and a low hurdle race,' he said. 'You have to explain to them how they put their feet very carefully over low hurdles so they will not irritate the examiner. It's not challenging at all.' He added: 'The vast majority of time spent on coursework is at best unhelpful and at worst it's destructive to creative intellectual capacities. The whole thing is misconceived.'

Manchester Grammar, a 9,000 pounds-a-year boys' day school whose alumni include former England cricket captain Michael Atherton and Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley, has offered the IGCSE in Maths for the past four years, and the sciences for the past three. From September, English Language, English Literature, History, Religious Studies, Latin, Music and Modern Languages will move to the IGCSE, with Geography following in 2010. Art is the only subject for which there is an IGCSE alternative which will not move away from the domestic GCSE exam.

The decision means the school - described in the Good Schools Guide as a 'premier league academic powerhouse' - will slump to the foot of official GCSE league tables because the Government does not recognise IGCSEs. But Dr Ray said the tables were 'totally irrelevant'. Other well-known schools are moving to the IGCSE in some subjects, including Winchester College and St Paul's School in Barnes, West London.

Dr Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's and a former high master of Manchester Grammar, said: 'The new GCSEs are appalling for the most able students. They are simply pap, they are baby food, they are examination rusks in too many subjects, and they do not stretch and challenge the most able.'


Lazy feminist

Overpaid and under-worked

At a moment when the University of Florida is slashing its budget and laying off faculty and staff, administrators thought it was reasonable to ask Florence Babb to increase her teaching load to three courses a year. She doesn't agree. Babb, an endowed professor and graduate coordinator of UF's Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, has entered into arbitration proceedings to challenge the increased teaching load. Babb was given an appointment letter in 2004 that said her teaching load would be limited to one course each semester, and now says the university isn't upholding its written agreement.

The United Faculty of Florida, a statewide union affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is backing Babb. As more universities contemplate budget cuts, Babb said it's important to make a stand. "This could be a kind of a test case," said Babb, who makes close to $100,000 a year. "I think there is some awareness that this is a big issue for me, but it's potentially a significant issue for many more people."

The university does not dispute that Babb's appointment letter laid out a one-class per semester course load. Even so, university officials argue that changing teaching loads is permissible under Florida's collective bargaining agreement with the union. "From the university's point of view, it is black and white in the collective bargaining agreement that a chair can adjust the assignment of a faculty member whenever they need to do so," said Joe Glover, Florida's provost. According to the agreement, the university is authorized to "determine the mix" of duties, which include teaching, research and service. Assignments must be "fair and reasonable," according to the agreement

Babb draws an annual salary of $99,223, according to university officials. The two classes she's teaching this spring have a total of 43 students. One of the classes she's teaching this spring is a graduate level course. "I was hired with a very attractive set of conditions, but no more attractive I think than other endowed professors at the University of Florida -- very typical of what I've seen in other contracts," she said.

In addition to her teaching, Babb serves as graduate coordinator in the women's studies center. Given her duties as coordinator, her new teaching load expanded to three courses over spring and fall semesters -- as opposed to four classes -- because her coordinator responsibility qualifies as a course. Prior to Babb's tenure in the position, the university had never previously granted the center's graduate coordinator course relief, because the center is relatively small, Glover said.

Florida took a $69 million budget cut last year, and Babb's college was already in financial trouble -- even before the state's economy started to plummet. Glover said the cuts put strains on the university's teaching mission, and increasing Babb's load was necessary. "This is a time when the budget process in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was so bad that we took the unprecedented step of laying off seven faculty, including several who were tenure track," Glover said. "Travel budgets were cut to the bone, there was very little hiring and everything was cut back. This is a professor who had a 1:1 course load who has complained about being asked to teach an additional course. I think that's a disproportionate response given the severity of the situation the college was facing."

Babb argues, however, that's she's been singled out in a way that others have not. "We're not aware of faculty who have had an increase of course load for the indefinite time period," she said. "That's striking." Actually, there was one endowed faculty member in Babb's college who was asked to increase his teaching load, according to Glover. That faculty member, whom Glover declined to identify, opted to retire instead, he said.

Milagros Pena, director of the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, declined an interview request. She did, however, send an e-mail affirming that the center's "most important" function is teaching. "The central mission of our center is its teaching mission," she wrote. "With loss of faculty and diminished . resources the center is facing the need for all core faculty to be available to meet the needs of the center's teaching mission."

The sticking point in the debate over Babb's teaching load may be the presence of a written document that articulates her teaching responsibilities, limiting them to one class each semester. Inside Higher Ed requested the document from both Babb and the university, neither of whom provided it Monday. Both parties confirm, however, that the agreement limits Babb's teaching load.

John Biro, president of the university's chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said the union would not have backed Babb if it didn't feel there was a strong case to be made that the university had violated its contract. "It's not the case that everyone's teaching load is specified in our collective bargaining agreement; that could not be the case for 2,000 faculty," he said. "The point is, when it is specified as part of the conditions of the employment then it can't be arbitrarily changed."

The union always has an interest in addressing any potential contract violations, but Biro said the need to do so was only heightened in an environment when the university is using budget cuts to justify layoffs and other changes. "I think it's especially important [now] to be vigilant about the contract," he said. "That's not incompatible with saying that we would at any time, under any circumstances, without exception challenge any violation."


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