‘Gaming’ row flares up again over PiXL Club’s advice for schools to use three-day ICT ‘GCSE’

A row over the use of a controversial fast-track ICT qualification that can be taught in just three days has again flared up after a leading headteacher raised concerns.

Schools Week revealed in May last year how the PiXL Club, an organisation that aims to raise attainment in schools, was encouraging its then 1,300 members to enter pupils for the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) qualification.

PiXL suggested enrolling “vulnerable” pupils who could take the exam as an “insurance policy” to ensure they got GCSEs.

One school leader who received the advice called it “dumbing down and gaming”, while PiXL chief Sir John Rowling hit back, claiming: “This is not a con trick.”

But the story has flared up again after Tom Sherrington (pictured above), headteacher at Highbury Grove School in Islington, blogged about a PiXL meeting he attended.

He explained how the day included a section on Progress 8 buckets and how schools can maximise grades.

One of the suggestions was to enter pupils for the ECDL course, Mr Sherrington wrote. He added that another speaker suggested whole-cohort entry into such exams to boost P8 scores.

Mr Sherrington described it as “disturbing and depressing”. He said: “It seems to be an explicit PiXL goal to maximise P8 for the school’s benefit – pretty much by whatever means necessary PiXL story– and I found myself feeling increasingly saddened that we’re in a state where this thinking holds sway on such a big scale.”

Mr Sherrington added: “We’re playing for advantage against each other, amassing credit from an arbitrary algorithm that defines success.”

The blog provoked a lively response on Twitter – including from Ofsted chief Sean Harford who described the part of the blog detailing the “tactics” as “depressing for education”.

He also tweeted: “This is why it’s so important not to get fixed on a single measure. I will be making sure inspectors look at a range of measures and, as importantly, the curriculum and its appropriateness.”

PiXL now has more than 1,500 schools that pay around £3,000 a year to join. The not-for-profit organisation, in return, provides access to conferences, online resources and development programmes with the aim of improving exam results.

PiXL describes itself as the largest partnership network of schools in England that work together to “achieve the highest outcomes for students and improve their life chances”.

It seems scores of schools are following its advice. Schools Week reported in June last year how uptake for the ECDL qualification had rocketed by more than 2,000 per cent in a year.

Many of the organisation’s supporters also spoke out to defend the organisation after Mr Sherrington’s blog.

Paul Hammond, who describes himself as a PiXL associate teacher and consultant, tweeted: “Difficult to see who loses out if kids get listed qualification and head teachers keep their jobs.”

He also said teachers should be able to assume all qualifications listed by the Department for Education are worthwhile for students, and said the term “gaming” is applied “very loosely”.

Schools Week emailed PiXL earlier today to ask if they would like to comment, but we have not yet received a response.

Sir John previously told Schools Week there was “a real crisis” in schools. “The interest of kids and schools are set at odds against each other by the system. I don’t sit in judgement of schools that live in fear of their jobs.”

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  1. Kevin Moody

    Disappointing in that Tom’s blog was actually very supportive of the information he received at the conference . It’s more depressing that schools and PIXL are being attached for doing the best they can for students

    • Graham

      Here here. I find the advice from PiXL outstanding. All of their advice come with the ‘health warning’ that we must first do what is right for our students.

      If sitting ECDL means that they get into college or their own schools sixth forms then great.

      What is the alternative then? NEET?

  2. Simon Harson

    What do I think? I think it’s interesting that you chose not to report that Mr Sherrington chose, on the back of his visit to the PiXL meeting, to join the organisation because he sees the benefit for his school and pupils. Gutter press creating sensationalist stories – certainly not balanced journalism.

  3. Only those high up in the league tables will be able to exercise a moral choice over whether to use the more dubious PiXL strategies or not.

    For those Head Teachers low in the league tables it will be a choice between “gaming” the system or losing their school and career. By DfE design, there have to be schools low in the league tables for there to be schools high in the league tables.

    If all schools become part of MATs, Head Teachers are not even going to have a choice. Is the £400,000 MAT CEO going to risk their salary on a Head’s morality? Even then there will still be schools at the bottom, so the gaming will have done nothing but convert our education system from one with moral purpose to one where cheating is the rule. This happened in the banking system. This is the future for English education. The only way to stop the inevitable is for the professionals to take control of education away from the politicians.

  4. Paul Hammond

    Assemblytube perhaps you could be more precise : a) what you define as “gaming” b) what you considerate be PiXLs “dubious practices” c) why a headteacher has to “lose their morals” to join PiXL.
    Obviously you have no accurate understanding of PiXLs work.

  5. Paul Hammond

    Any large organisation can expect scrutiny and criticism – that comes with the territory. In the interests of informed debate however, might I suggest that those with negative views on PiXL might consider the following questions ?

    1. Have you a full and balanced view of the full range of activity that PiXL undertakes ? The ground-breaking work on character ? Its debating project led by Geoff Barton ? Its long history of work within PRUs ?

    Or – is your opinion characterised by promotion of a few courses such as that current focus of attention : ECDL ?

    2. What do you consider to be contained within the definition of “gaming ?” One critic suggested this shortlist :

    a) Discussing what might come up in exams.

    b) Not teaching all the syllabus to focus on likely exam topics.

    c) Focusing help on “borderline” pupils.

    d) Encouraging pupils to memorise mark schemes.

    e) Choosing qualifications to improve place in school league tables.

    f) Entering pupils early for exams to allow resits.

    g) Switching to an ‘easier’ exam board.

    h) Telling pupils to use revision guides not textbooks.

    i) Encouraging pupils to rote-learn answers.

    j) Giving hints to pupils during controlled assessment.

    Now some of this is incorrect if intended to apply to PiXL – b, c, h notably – and some like j is illegal. But – if we included all of these suggestions in the gaming definition – have you ever “gamed ?”

    3. Have you considered why PiXL has grown to a membership of 1500 ? Might it be the withdrawal of LA subject and school improvement advisors from the last century ? Have most MATs replaced that expertise ? I would suggest “no.” Clearly PiXL is meeting a need.

    4. All courses recommended by PiXL come from a heavily-edited government-approved list of qualifications. Achievement in these is measured by the government-composed index Progress 8. Progress 8 is the prime measure by which RSCs and Ofsted hold schools to account. Can you blame a Headteacher for being keen to maximise Progress 8 in that environment ?

    5. And anyway – who loses out ? In a regime where students are being shepherded down the narrow EBacc route, schools need more options for allowing a wider range of students to benefit from qualification success – from the government list, remember.

    6. In a world where struggling Headteachers are asked to supply action plans by the LA, RSC, Ofsted and sometimes the academy chain, many Heads appreciate the visit of a PiXL associate whose only agenda is to ask : “how can I help ?” Followed 90 minutes later by “oh, and by the way – before I go, how are you doing ? You look a bit tired …”

    Little wonder that PiXL’s growing ….

  6. The BCS Level 2 ECDL Certificate in IT Application skills has been designed specifically for schools. We do not condone any school running BCS Level 2 ECDL Certificate in IT Application skills over a 3 day period and do not believe that this qualification can be taught in 3 days.

    Schools do tailor it to fit with their timetable and curriculum programme. The majority of students taking the qualification are in Year 10 and Year 11 and they complete it over a 12 or 24 month period. Some schools do run intensive revision sessions, as they do for any other subject prior to exams, building on core knowledge already developed over a long period.

    IT skills are broadly used across schools in many subjects and ECDL can be used to build on and enhance any pre-existing IT skills the student has. For example, we have seen it being used with Year 9 students to achieve their first qualification which the schools believe helps prepare students for Key Stage 4, taking advantage of the skills they learn in all their other examination subjects: