From education to employment

The GCSE Maths Resit: Groupthink and Survivor Bias

Grant Hubbard

There appears to be a groundswell of activity among those calling for educational reform, focusing on the need to address the UK’s growing attainment gap. Those students caught in the FE sector’s maths resit program are not only (obviously) from the lower end of this achievement spectrum, but for various complex reasons are also predominantly from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Given that over 300,000 students (of all ages and institutions) fail to achieve the national benchmark of a grade 4 GCSE maths pass each year, the resit program offers an unprecedented opportunity to close significant areas of the gap for students on the FE register: if a better solution can be found to the one currently in operation.

Why does the FE sector repeat the same general teaching practices in dealing with the GCSE maths resit program?

In light of this, the following question requires an answer: why does the FE sector repeat the same general teaching practices in dealing with the GCSE maths resit program, when as a result, every year for the past decade, they see 90% of their students fail the GCSE exam? This is not an exercise in criticising the hard working teachers of the FE sector. This is a genuine attempt to start a long overdue debate about why as a nation we appear to be stuck, seemingly unable to teach mathematics to a significant section of the population.

Groupthink and Institutional Inertia

The phenomenon of an institution being stuck, unable to come up with alternative ideas, is certainly not new and many psychologists have studied such behaviour for decades. One research topic in particular may offer some insight as to why the State Education system is where it is, with regard to the GCSE maths resit.

Groupthink is characterised by behaviour that arises when a tight-knit group places internal cohesion, harmony and consensus over and above the need to properly test any ideas, theories, strategies or philosophies the group may come up with. The concept was first published by Irving L Janis in Psychology Today, in November 1971, and had been in development since the second World War.

Janis: “There are numerous indications pointing to the development of group norms that bolster morale at the expense of critical thinking. One of the most common norms appears to be that of remaining loyal to the group by sticking with the policies to which the group has already committed itself, even when those policies are obviously working out badly and have unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of each member. This is one of the key characteristics of Groupthink.”

Evidence, Theory Testing, and the Scientific Method

As any scientist will tell you, the act of testing a theory properly, includes (but is not limited to) looking at the evidence for what the outcome or consequences of the theory actually are. They will also tell you that if you can find just one instance of a theory not holding, then the theory is clearly not universal, and exceptions to any prediction should be expected.

The outcome of the FE sector’s application of State endorsed Education Theory to the GCSE maths resit program, is that around 120,000 students sit the exam each year and 90% of them fail to achieve the minimum grade 4 pass (FOIA: Ofqual 2023).

The consequences for the students concerned, are repeated exposure to enforced and universally disliked classes, followed by further failure, accompanied by all the attendant destruction of self-esteem we ought to expect. The continued non-achievement of the grade 4 pass certificate eventually becomes a barrier to certain jobs and apprenticeships, and affects (for example) a student’s UCAS status.

Ingroups, Outgroups, and Dehumanisation

Groups that fall prey to Groupthink often see themselves as insular “ingroups” existing in imagined conflict with those not in the group.

Janis: “The symptoms of Groupthink arise when the members of decision-making groups become motivated [via external pressures] to avoid being too harsh in their judgments of their leaders’ or their colleagues’ ideas… Paradoxically, soft-headed ingroups are often hard-hearted when it comes to dealing with outgroups… They find it relatively easy to… ignore the ethical and moral consequences of their decisions… [and] resort to dehumanising actions directed against outgroups.”

Those working within the FE sector are in constant contact with two outgroups in particular: the students caught in the resit program, and would-be experts working outside of the State Education system: these would include (but not be limited to) subject specialists from either Industry or HE.

The Association of Colleges recently published a report claiming that “poor mental health” was now the primary cause for student absence in colleges. Rather than address stresses induced by a system that the student outgroup is compelled to endure, in a classic example of Groupthink, the explanation of maths exam failure has been ascribed to the student outgroup’s mental state. Similarly, proposals regarding alternative teaching methods, when put by expert outgroups from outside of the State Education system, are ignored. Casual observers (such as parents) expressing an honest interest in what’s going on with resit failure rates, are directed instead to the sector’s pass rates for entry level FSQs, as if the GCSE situation didn’t exist at all.

Janis: “The more cohesive the group, the greater the inner compulsion on the part of each member to avoid creating disunity, which inclines [them] to believe in the soundness of whatever proposals are promoted by the leader or by a majority of the group’s members… without attempting to carry out a careful, critical scrutiny of the pros and cons of the alternatives.”

Clearly, the FE sector is largely made up of individual teachers who are deeply committed to helping young people, and who are passionate about the benefits education can bestow. Furthermore, there can be few industries as obsessed with producing data and statistics as today’s State Education system. It is therefore necessary to offer some explanation as to the mechanism by which these genuinely good intentions have gone as badly wrong as they have, when it comes to the GCSE maths resit program.

Survivor Bias

One possible explanation for State Education’s seeming inability to see the wood for the trees, is the phenomenon referred to as “survivor bias”. This is an effect related to statistical analysis, where data relating to the successful passing of a selection process, outweighs data relating to the failing of the process.

The classic example of survivor bias is the inspection of WW2 aircraft upon their return to base after bombing raids. These planes were often riddled with bullet-holes in particular areas. Quite naturally, the areas most often hit were the ones reinforced with extra armour, and this practice continued until statistician Abraham Wald pointed out that these aircraft, though hit often, had clearly not been damaged in any area critical to their continued airworthiness, because they had survived the ordeal. From this point on, armour was applied to aircraft where data points (bullet-holes) did NOT exist, and from that point on, statistically more planes returned from each mission.

In very general terms: everyone employed in a teaching or managerial capacity in a school or college is in a sense, a survivor of the State Education system. Students who pass through State schools to arrive at an FE college with little in the way of paper qualifications are those for whom the system did not work. They are in a sense, “the missing in action”, and data regarding their subjective experience is missing from the picture.

With specific regard to mathematics, the conditions that lead to a student’s exam failure are legion, but any State Education Groupthinking along the lines of: “method X worked for us, therefore method X hasn’t work yet for them” carries with it the assumption that all the relevant data is available, when perhaps it is not. Perhaps methods for teaching maths other than those endorsed by Ofsted are required.

One very obvious additional, yet consistently overlooked explanation for missing data, is the modern world’s love affair with quantitative data: if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t exist. Qualitative data on the other hand, since it can’t readily be digitized, is ignored. Could it be that it’s the student voice that’s still “missing in action” here? Could it be that any effect this missing data might have on FE student outcomes is being compounded by the fact that survivor bias and Groupthink are natural bedfellows?

The good news is that in identifying Groupthink as a phenomenon, Irving Janis went on to propose strategies for avoiding it.

Janis: “The group should invite one or more outside experts to each meeting on a staggered basis and encourage the experts to challenge the views of the core members.”

As mentioned above, in as far as the FE sector is concerned, the two most obvious outgroups are the students caught up in the maths resit program, and experts from outside professions. Both of these groups do indeed have their own expertise: GCSE maths resit students are experts in how they feel about this requirement (however unpalatable these feelings may be to hear) and mathematicians (for example) have an expert view of mathematics not necessarily aligned with the Key Stage National Curriculum that State Education is so wedded to. In either case, divergent opinions are not necessarily incorrect, and in both cases, these outgroups may well have important contributions to make, in changing a situation that has consistently not worked for anyone, for a decade.

World of difference between hearing and listening

There is of course a world of difference between hearing and listening: the FE sector must be prepared to do both, and then act on what it learns. This should be something the nation has every right to expect, given that all concerned have one common purpose: at the very least we must find a workable solution to the GCSE resit problem, and at the very best we could hope to turn the whole thing on its head, and see the resit students start to excel. After all, whether inside or outside, aren’t we all on the same side?

by Grant Hubbard, University and College Lecturer in Mathematics, BSc(Hons) MSc(MRes) Mathematics

Associate Member of the London Mathematical Society

Associate Member of the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications

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