A-Level results and football: Another enlightening analysis

footballNow the A-Level and GCSE results are out the usual sets of analysis and observations based on the data have started making an appearance.    As usual causal explanations have been developed to explain the data, using what Naseem Taleb described as the backwards process.   The resulting judgments have been established to fit the available data without any consideration for the data which is not available.

The perfect example is an article in the guardian (Wales A-Level results raise concerns pupils falling behind rest of UK, Richard Adams, Aug 2016)  discussing the A-level results in Wales as compared with the results in England.   The overall drop in the percentage entries achieving A* and A dropped in England “only slightly to 25.8%” while in Wales I “fell more steeply to 22.7%”.     The causal explanation apparently arrived at by one “expert” was that boys had been “possibly distracted by the national football team’s success at Euro 2016”.    This fails to consider the total number of entries in England when compared with Wales;   I suspect Wales would have less entries therefore resulting in increased variability in Welsh results versus English results.      The data also fails to include any information in relation to the students GCSE results.   Had the Welsh students achieved lower GCSEs results than their English counterparts it may be that their overall lower level of achievement could amount to “better” results given their lower starting point as measured by GCSEs.

Another possible conclusion, which is easy for me to draw as a Scotsman and most likely more difficult for an Englishman, is that the data shows something which wasn’t related to the Welsh football performance at all.    The English A-Level results could be better due to English students throwing themselves into their work following England’s poor showing during Euro 2016.  It’s the same data but a different conclusion which has been generated and made to fit the data available without any consideration for the data which isn’t available.

Having considered further this issue I think I am now more inclined than ever to agree with Talebs comments regarding the importance of the unread books in a library rather than the read ones.    Talebs discusses how a home library filled with read books gives a person the illusion of knowledge; the person has read it all.    A library filled largely with unread books however makes clear all that we do not yet know and have not read.    Reading each of these commentaries and analysis in relation to the A-Level data isn’t making me more informed or more educated, in fact it may be blinding me to the “true” facts or to other possibilities.    I think, therefore, that this will be my last post moaning about “expert” analysis or results as from now on I need to stop reading the analysis in the first place!



Some thoughts on GCSE and A-Level results

criminalatt from freedigitalphotosHaving read various articles following the recent A-Level and GCSE results I cant help but think that schools and more importantly education in general needs to make a decision as to what we are seeking to achieve, and stop acting re-actively to limited data which has been used to draw generalized conclusions.

Take for example the shortage of STEM graduates and students.    This was and still is billed as a big issue which has resulted in a focus on STEM subjects in schools.   More recently there has been a specific focus on computer programming and coding within schools.     In a recent article it was acknowledged that the number of students taking A-Level Computing had “increased by 56% since 2011” (The STEM skills gap on the road to closing, Nichola Ismail, Aug 2016).     This appears to suggest some positive movement however in another article poor A-Level ICT results were cited as a cause for concern for the UK Tech industry (A Level Results raise concern for UK tech industry, Eleanor Burns, Aug 2016).  Now I acknowledge this data is limited as ideally I need to know whether ICT uptake has been increasing and also whether A-Level Computing results declined, however it starts to paint a picture.

Adding to this picture is an article from the guardian discussing entries:

Arts subjects such as drama and music tumbled in terms of entries, and English was down 5%. But it was the steep decline in entries for French, down by 6.5% on the year, as well as German and Spanish, that set off alarm bells over the poor state of language teaching and take-up in Britain’s schools.

Pupils shun English and physics A-Levels as numbers with highest grades falls, Richard Adams, Aug 2016)

So we want STEM subjects to increase and they seem to be for computing, however we don’t want modern languages entries to fall.   Will this mean that next year there will be a focus on encouraging students to take modern foreign languages?    And if so, and this results in the STEM numbers going down will we then re-focus once more on STEM subjects until another subject shows signs of suffering.

It gets even more complex when a third article raises the issue of Music A level Entries which “dropped by 8.8% in a single year from 2015 and 2016”.  (We stand back and allow the decline of Music and the Arts at our peril. Alun Jones, Aug 2016).    Drama entries are also shown to have seen a decrease this year (Dont tell people with A-Levels and BTecs they have lots of options, Jonathan Simons, Aug 2016).  So where should our focus lie?   Should it be on STEM subject, foreign languages, drama or Music?

I suspect that further research would result in further articles raising concerns about still further subjects, either in the entries or the results.   Can we divide our focus across all areas or is there a particular area, such as STEM subjects, which are more worthy of focus?  Do the areas for focus change from year to year?

As I write this my mind drifts to the book I am currently reading, Naseem Talebs, The Black Swan, and to Talebs snooker analogy as to variability.     We may be able to predict with a reasonable level of accuracy, a single snooker shot however as we try to predict further ahead we need more data.    As we predict five shots ahead the quality of the surface of the table, the balls, the cue, the environmental conditions in the room, etc. all start to matter more and more, and therefore our ability to predict becomes less and less accurate.      Taking this analogy and looking at schools what chance do we have of predicting of the future and what the UK or world will need from our young adults?    How can we predict the future requirements which will be needed from the hundreds of thousands of students across thousands of schools, studying a variety of subjects from a number of different examining bodies, in geographical locations across the UK and beyond.

These generalisations of data are subject to too much variability to be useful.    We should all focus on our own schools as by reducing the scope we reduce the variability and increase the accuracy.   We also allow for the context to be considered as individual school leaders may know the significant events which may impact on the result of their cohort, individual classes or even individual students.  These wide scale general statements as to the issues, as I have mentioned in a number of previous postings, are of little use to anyone.   Well, anyone other than editors wishing to fill a space in a newspaper or news website.






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