Is the new focus for education data not content?

It has been apparent for some time that there may be a structural decline in the content market in schools. However, there is one area that has remained buoyant over recent years – data.  This is demonstrated by the recent market interest in the acquisition of assessment provider Granada Learning – an acquisition that could have been seen as defensive by a publisher, but is seen as an opportunity by Investcorp.  Why is this?

Data is increasingly essential to the operation of schools.  Both assessment/ attainment data and management data are generated in ever increasing quantities, and both have the potential to drive school improvement.  It is used for accountability purposed through Ofsted; top communicate with parents and most importantly teachers use data to enhance the learning they deliver to pupils, for example in the assessment for learning process:

Data is essential to this cycle – curriculum data describing what should be taught; pupil data collecting data about the child and the school’s interaction with it and attainment data gathered from tests and teacher assessment.

Few schools make effective use of this data – it is often manually entered into spreadsheets and shared at particular points in the school year, and many teachers are not equipped to analyse it.  Therefore supporting school data use is a significant area of opportunity for the commercial sector – in terms of:

  • Data acquisition – supporting schools in generating attainment and other data through assessment and from content tasks
  • Data management – helping schools effectively to collect and share data
  • Data analysis – Supporting schools in making the data useful to teachers in terms of supporting pupils, and identifying successes

Publishers have a significant opportunity to enhance their portfolios by using their content to generate useful data; and by developing systems to consolidate and analyse data.

Grade inflation – is it the fault of publishers?

Another week, another tumultuous period for education policy … with significant implications for the structure of educational publishing.  Hot on the heels of the release of the first draft of the primary programmes of study, Michael Gove’s desire to re-instate some backbone to 14-16 education by returning to “O” levels was mysteriously leaked to the Daily Mail.  Ignoring the issues that this alone might raise (see this very interesting FT blog for one perspective), the ideas when fleshed out advocate a single exam board for each core subject and a stripping back of the National Curriculum (Gove’s desire to remove it completely is impractical as it would require primary legislation) – all this to be achieved by 2014.  Interestingly, this “leak” came the week before the scheduled release of the Select Committee on Education published its report on 15-19 examinations.  This specifically looks at the issue of competition in the exam system, and the place of educational publishers within it.

The key issue that Gove, the Select Committee and many recent curriculum reviews and media commentary is trying to address is that of grade inflation – and attendant confidence in the exam system.  And a key issue that has been identified driving this inflation is competition between exam boards.  The argument is that in order to attract schools, exam boards make exams “easier” and provide substantial support to students to protect their market share.  Proponents of a single board per subject approach argue that this would remove this competitive pressure.  The Select Committee considered this, and was concerned that a single board would stifle innovation.  It looked at three functions of exam boards that are differentiators:

  • Syllabus – what an exam covers
  • Exam administration – how the exam is delivered, marked and analysed
  • Support – the support that the exam board gives to schools and students

The Select Committee argues that “Syllabus” is not necessary for competitive advancement of the exam system, and could be developed by “National Subject Committees” regulated by Ofqual (any similarities to the old QCA are purely accidental).  Competitive pressures in Exam Admin and Support could (with effective regulation) continuously enhance the exam system.  The report then goes on to examine each of these areas in detail.  And of particular interest to publishers is the section on Support.

There are two areas of support considered.  First is traning – seminars given by exam boards to schools and pupils.  This is an area of concern after the recent Telegraph expose, and the report commends Ofqual’s decision to end the practice (which opens up a potential opportunity for publishers).  However the section on textbooks is of greater interest to publishers.  There is discussion of the links between textbook endorsement, the curriculum covered by the textbook and the drive to raise pupils’ grades.  The argument is that exam board endorsement of a particular text book (whether produced by an external company or a partner company in the case of Edexel and Pearson) stymies competition in the development of resources in that subject.  In turn, the need to gain competitive advantage by gaining endorsement narrows the content of that textbook to closely follow the desires of the exam board – which as noted earlier is driven by a requirement to drive up grades to retain market share.  Additional factors such as authorship by examiners (are they the best authors?) and the close links between certain exam boards and particular publishers also caused the Committee concern as they may have issues for the quality of resources.

Interestingly, and perhaps astutely, the Education Committee chooses not to lay the blame for these perceived quality issues purely at the door of the relationship between endorsement, examiner authorship and competition between exam boards,  In fact the main driver is identified as the school accountability system – where schools are being assessed by their GCSE grades their is an intolerable pressure on them to raise them – and this inevitably leads to a focus on raising grades, and getting pupils over the D/C boundary.  It recommends that “school system” accountability be separated from the exam system – and measured through PISA like sampling – this should take the sting out of the “falling standards” argument.  And in order to address the narrowing of teaching within schools, they should not be assessed on exam grades alone.

A key question is – how accurate is this analysis? In a competitive market resources are created to meet market demand.  And in this case the key driver is the concern uppermost in customers’ - schools’ – minds, that of achieving their targets.  Thus necessarily resources are created that match the syllabus which is being taught, and if “endorsement” and “examiner authorship” increase this perception these are the legitimate tools of the publisher.  And in any such environment “good” resources and “poor” resources will be developed.  It is up to schools to choose those which best meet their needs. The unfortunate truth is that this is not a “pure” market as it is skewed by government policy.  The current accountability system for schools ensures that for all players in the system the overriding driver is meeting exam based targets.  And this creates an environment where the “best” resources do not necessarily win.  The question is – will the current education reform proposals reduce this focus on exam grades?  In their current form it appears unlikely.


Curriculum change again

Last week saw the publishing of the draft programmes of study for Michael Gove’s revised primary curriculum.  Coming on a back of a series of reviews (the Rose Review and the Cambridge Primary Review) at the end of the Labour Government, the publication is as ever surrounded by controversy.  But what does it mean for publishers?

Curriculum change offers publishers an opportunity – new curriculum structures require new teaching schemes and resources – and demonstrate the complex relationship between Government, practitioners and publishers.  Without the commercial sector, Government education policy would not be delivered so easily, as publishers translate curriculum change into resources that support teachers in delivering that curriculum.

So what are the key changes in the new curriculum?  There are several headline changes:

  • The detail of what is to be delivered remains prescriptive.  Whilst not radically different, has an increased emphasis on knowledge and rote learning
  • The programmes of study are now yearly rather than in two year blocks
  • Levels and level descriptors are to be abolished (however details of the replacement assessment regimen have yet to be published)

Publishers can adapt to changes in curriculum content easily.  It is the second two changes to teaching practice that will be harder to manage … the change to annual programmes adds a level of prescription – not only are teachers told what children should know, but when they should know it – this leaves less flexibility for children to catch up.  And the removal of levels is potentially the most disruptive … for some time now the focus on assessment has been criticised from all sides.  However, levels are not just used to tell others where children are, but to inform teaching in the classroom.  Teachers use them to track individual progress and understand when interventions are required – and increasingly with the adoption of assessment for learning techniques levels are the language with which children understand their own targets, progress and assess themselves and their peers.

Techniques such as APP and Assessment for Learning have supported the teaching profession in understanding how to assess where a child is, and how to support them to make better progress.  They have become a shared language for the profession and changing this will present a significant challenge to teachers, and the publishers supporting them.

Thus the latest round of curriculum change does present an opportunity to publishers – but also a threat.  Until we understand how children are to be assessed, and how teacher will use this to inform teaching it is unclear what form alternative teaching resources will take, and prudent publishers will watch this space keenly.

Can we be trusted with data?

A report into the usefulness of league tables across the public sector has just been published by the British Academy.  In it Harvey Goldstein and Ben Folen argue that tables do not well serve the purposes put forward for such data, which are:

  1. ‘public accountability’- enabling the funders of institutions to determine whether they are receiving value for money
  2. “supporting choice” – helping the users of services to chose a school or hospital based on its track record
  3. “control” – to provide levers for government to influence the activity in institutions
The problem with league tables as they stand is that not only do they create perverse side effects (the prime purpose of a primary school seems  now to be to ensure it is well placed in the league tables rather than giving a well rounded curriculum), but the very indicators used to define league tables are limited by what can be measured – and it is very hard to measure qualitative things.
More importantly data in league tables is published as fact, with none of the caveats or reliability information around it supplied.  Such data is merely a sample.  When schools look at assessment data they are usually given the confidence interval around it – the range of scores that a particular result could be indicative of.  Such data is not published around league tables, and due to the small sample of a single assessment the confidence interval (or range of possible results indicated) is large.
The Government is seeking to make league tables in education more useful by publishing more data.  However this does not make them more reliable.  It also does not address the issue of data literacy in the target market – parents and teachers.  How many actually understand what Contextual Value Added (CVA) actually means?  And how many just look at the position of a school in the league table and take it as a firm indication of the quality of all aspects of a school?
But this issue of data  literacy is evident across the profession.  It is often considered that the more data that is supplied to schools the better decisions that a school will make.  And the data provided in systems such as RaiseOnline is very detailed.  However there are very few teachers who are able to take advantage of this data.  Across education there needs to be a focus on making data rich and usable, rather than publishing it because it is there.
Harvey Goldstein, one of the authors of the report, was interviewed on the Today Programme on March 29th 2012 – the segment is at 1h32mins here - catch it while you can!

The demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica – is this the inevitable end for all print?

It has been widely reported today that Encyclopaedia Britannica is ceasing publication of its print version after 244 years.  In the face of competition from initially Microsoft’s Encarta (remember that?) and now Wikipedia, the investment of thousands of pounds in a static repository of knowledge for individuals and institutions no longer makes sense.  But, in a world of Kindles and Apple’s iBook Textbooks, does this point to the inevitable demise of all things print?

The short answer is, I believe, no.  Firstly there is the historical perspective.  As has been noted many times over the years no one new media “class” has replaced another.  Television did not replace radio.  Digital audio has yet to supplant analogue (in fact vinyl sales have been growing recently).  And the internet has not replaced linear TV.  What seems to happen is that each new media makes the mix of consumption more complex.  (Note that within genre of media, there can be replacement – DVD replaced video, and will eventually be replaced by digital streaming – but video delivery remains – ditto the replacement of illuminated manuscript with print …).

However, within print certain classes of “misfit” publishing will vanish.  Encyclopaedias are one such class.  For what is an encyclopaedia other than a database in a book?  It has been crying out for the invention of digital to add the functionality (e.g. cross referencing) that it has tried to implement in a ham-fisted fashion on paper … this was clear from the early days of electronic legal publishing where even traditional, hide-bound barristers found themselves buying databases such as CELEX and the All England Law Reports.

Where does that leave other publishing formats?  Well, an ebook does not add much functionality to a novel – other than portability at the expense of fragility.  My expectation is that the two will co-exist for generations more.  The case against the traditional textbook is easier to make.  These are repositories of knowledge.  They are multimedia – containing images (and would be enhanced by video), contain exercises and assessments, and so are prime for a gradual decline.  However, until the hardware delivering an electronic textbook becomes cheap, reliable and ubiquitous (and Apples iBook for iPad is none of these yet), this cannot happen.  But the market is aware of the potential disruption, and this is causing a systemic decline in sales.

So is print on its way out – no.  But are there more classes of print publishing that will go?  Without a doubt – and the textbook is likely to be one of them.

Gove seeks to sever the links between exam boards and publishers

Ofqual have launched their consultation into education resource development … this will have an impact on the way that education publishers and exam boards conduct themselves…

Over recent years one of the ways that publishers have gained competitive advantage for their resources has been to gain exam board endorsement.  And this has driven relationships such as Pearson’s with Edexcel.  However, in the light of many representations to Goverment and the recent telegraph expose of exam board practice, Michael Gove is looking to sever this relationship.

This will have an impact both on the way that publishers construct their courses (perhaps making them more board independent) and how they market them.

For details of the consultation, please see the Ofqual site:  Qualification support material and services: call for evidence.