Monday, May 26, 2014

Axe looms for 'soft' British High School subjects  like Hospitality and Planning for Life -- in bid to toughen up exam system

A string of GCSE subjects deemed to be ‘too easy’ are facing the axe as part of a radical overhaul by the Government’s exam watchdog.

Courses such as Leisure and Tourism, Health and Social Care, and Preparing for Work and Life – which teaches pupils about finding and applying for jobs – could be stripped of their status as GCSEs.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is already toughening up core subjects such as maths and English to boost the exam’s academic reputation.

Now regulator Ofqual is set to draw up rigorous guidelines that are expected to result in a swathe of  ‘soft’ qualifications losing their GCSE label.

Critics believe many of these qualifications are popular with head teachers because they have allowed less academically gifted children to achieve passes in nationally recognised exams, so boosting the school’s position in league tables.

Figures released last week show the number of pupils taking Leisure and Tourism this summer is 7,461 – a 120 per cent rise compared with the previous year. In 2013, more than two-thirds of students achieved at least a C grade in the subject.

Health and Social Care is being studied by 18,193 pupils this year, up 44 per cent on 2013, when more than half scored a C or above.

And just over 30,000 youngsters are taking Hospitality, which focuses on the hotel and restaurant trade – up 21 per cent on last year. Again, more than half of students achieved a C grade or higher last summer.

Other ‘soft’ GCSE subjects where pupils did particularly well last year included Preparation for Life and Work, and Media Studies.

Detractors say many of these  GCSEs, introduced under the last Labour Government, lack academic discipline and ‘discredit’ the system.  They want them axed or else become vocational courses.

Ofqual, which approves courses drawn up by exam boards, has said that the number of non-academic subjects available ‘devalues’ the GCSE ‘brand’.

The organisation said that while it would not make rulings on individual subjects, it would be drawing up criteria that exam boards would have to meet if their papers were to keep their GCSE status after 2016.

The guidelines will call for more rigorous content and assessment.

One question in last summer’s Leisure and Tourism exam included: ‘Old Trafford is the home of Manchester United Football Club. This is an example of a major sports venue. Name one other example of a major sports venue.’

In 2011, the paper asked: ‘Which of the following is an example of a natural attraction? Blackpool Tower, Madame Tussauds, Ben Nevis or The London Eye?’

In Health and Social Care, questions over recent years have included: ‘Starting school is associated with which life stage? Middle adulthood, early childhood, adolescence or puberty?’, and ‘James was recently diagnosed with diabetes. He is obese, has a poor diet and drinks heavily. Assess how James’s lifestyle may affect his health  and wellbeing.’

Chris McGovern, of the Campaign For Real Education, said: ‘These are far too easy for GCSEs. This is obviously a dilution of academic standards and a sad reflection on our examiners that they expect so little. It is a tragic situation.  ‘We must get rid of these Mickey Mouse GCSEs. They discredit the entire exam system.’

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre For Education And Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: ‘GCSEs have spawned in all sorts of directions, some of which look mainly to be a way of occupying the time of non-academic pupils rather than being qualifications that mean something and lead somewhere.

‘It doesn’t make sense to have them as the equivalent of, say, physics or history.

‘The revision of the GCSE structures is the ideal opportunity to decide which are of the right standards and which can be pruned to the benefit of everyone.’

Prof Smithers said many of them could be reclassified as vocational qualifications. Other GCSE subjects popular in colleges could also lose their status, including Catering, Contemporary Crafts, and Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies.

The Government has already indicated that, apart from maths, English, science and languages, it wants to retain GCSEs in religious studies, design and technology, art and design, drama, dance, music, physical education, computer science and citizenship studies.


Bill to Replace Common Core Headed to SC Governor’s Desk

The South Carolina House Tuesday passed a bill that would create a committee to review and replace national Common Core standards in the state before the 2015-16 school year.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokesperson said the governor intends to sign the bill. State Sen. Wes Hayes (R-Rock Hill), chairman of the Senate Education Committee also said Haley is likely to sign the bill and may do so as soon as Friday.

Common Core sets forth what K-12 math and English curriculum and tests must cover, and was heavily promoted by the Obama administrations. Critics say its offers mediocre academics, while proponents say it’s better than what most states had previously. 

The bill sparked a debate earlier this spring when the State Department of Education decided to withdraw from national Common Core tests in anticipation of legislative action. The State Board of Education voted down that proposal, but the current state superintendent, Mick Zais, reinstated the department’s decision to drop the tests.

The bill, once signed into law, should clear any confusion caused by the conflicting orders. The bill prohibits South Carolina from using the federally funded national tests.

“A special assessment panel will be convened immediately upon passage of the bill to provide input for a new assessments system, and must seek public input,” Hayes said.

Slow Transition Ahead
The bill would not immediately stop all aspects of Common Core, however.

Once signed the new law “would continue implementation of Common Core Standards in [English] and Math in 2014-15, but also requires a cyclical review of these standards on or before January 1, 2015, for the purpose of adopting South Carolina college and career readiness standards for 2015-16” said Hayes.

Hayes said he does not expect the new standards to simply rewrite Common Core. He cited increased public awareness of Common Core as a reason to be optimistic for genuine improvements upon the national benchmarks.

Sheri Few, a candidate for state superintendent, was a bit more cautious, and pointed out that Democrats had already expressed their intent to rebrand Common Core as the South Carolina standards.

“It is all going to be determined by the new superintendent so it is critically important that we elect the right superintendent of education, otherwise we will end up just like Indiana, or Oklahoma, or Arizona with just a repackaging and rebranding,” said Few.

Few is running to replace Zais, who is not running for reelection. She will face several opponents in the Republican primary on June 10. She expects the vote to result in a runoff that will take place two weeks later.

“Nothing else matters if we don’t get rid of Common Core because Common Core is destroying public education. This has to be the first order of business, and for these other candidates it is not the priority. It is just something they simply added to their stump speech because they know that’s what voters want to hear,” said Few.


Education Tax Credits

As education options have expanded and states have tried different kinds of laws, research and experience are showing even states currently offering some forms of school choice can benefit by improving and expanding their offerings. This is true for every state, whether it offers no school choice, only some forms of public school choice such as charters, or even multiple public and private education options.

The most popular form of private school choice is education tax credits, usually in the form of a tax-credit scholarship. These give individuals, businesses, or both the ability to deduct from their tax bills donations to private nonprofit organizations that use the money to help kids attend schools outside their assigned district school. Currently, 13 states offer tax-credit scholarships, and four offer individual education tax deductions.

This form of school choice differs from others in primarily two ways. First, because the money tax-credit scholarships use is entirely private, the programs avoid state or federal prohibitions against sending money to religious institutions or establishing a religion. Second, these programs offer the “cleanest” school choice option, meaning the one with the least burdensome government regulations, because they are not funded by tax collections.

Proponents of education tax credits tout these benefits over other choice programs such as vouchers or charter schools, noting the latter two are still so constrained by stifling regulations that many private schools will not participate and some charter operators will not enter a particular state. Offering more kinds of choice expands the opportunities for families to find a good education that matches their children’s needs. Tax-credit scholarships especially foster a healthy diversity in education by typically not forcing private schools to administer state tests that pressure them to offer public-school-style curricula rather than more-effective alternatives. Because no public money is used, participating private schools retain their natural accountability to parents and local communities.

School choice opponents criticize education tax credits for the same reasons they criticize vouchers. They say giving families more options will take students and therefore money from public schools, and it’s not fair or beneficial that private schools don’t have to follow all the same rules as government schools. They also claim school choice does not improve students’ academic achievement.

Gold-standard and other high-quality studies contradict these claims, however, concluding private school choice does indeed improve academic achievement, as well as racial integration, social harmony, tolerance for people who think differently, college entrance and graduation rates, and more. They also find school choice programs universally save taxpayers money while offering higher-quality education to more children.


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