Following the biggest shake up of school exams since the 1980s, teenagers all over the country will be sitting new style GSCEs this summer. So what has changed exactly? And what was the motivation behind the reforms? Lisa Botwright finds out more…
In June 2013, when Michael Gove was Education Secretary, he set out a plan to radically modify GCSEs in England. “There is now a widespread consensus,” he declared in his speech to the House of Commons, “that we need to reform our examination system to restore public confidence.” Gove was referring to what he saw as “the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down” and addressing concerns that we were slipping down the global education league tables. “By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching,” he rallied, “we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.”
The bold and sweeping reforms envisaged by Gove are now a reality, and this summer, the very first pupils will sit the newly revised GCSEs. What exactly are the changes, and, more importantly, how will they affect our teenagers?
Gove’s first move was to ask Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) to explore how the grading structure might be reformed to better reward the very best performers. He also proposed that coursework and controlled assessment should be largely replaced by linear and externally marked end-of-course exams. And, in essence, these are the changes that have come into effect: more demanding content, an end to coursework, and – in order to reflect the updates – a new grading system, which will see numbers replacing letters, on a 9-1 scale.
Gove has certainly ensured that there’s scope to reward the best performers. As Saajan Rana, Director of Studies at The John Lyon School, an academically selective school for boys in Harrow, explains, “In order to bring about more differentiation at the top end, the introduction of a new grade, the level 9, will be the equivalent to a grade A**.” He’s positive that this will encourage “greater academic aspiration” among his pupils.
However, less confident, less academic children may well be slightly intimidated by the fact that the bar has also been raised at the pass-mark level. Dr Josephine Valentine, Head of St Clement Danes School, a partially selective academy in Chorleywood, cautions that “the old ‘C’ would have been [roughly equivalent to] a ‘4’ on the new system, but a ‘pass grade’ is now to be considered a ‘5’…” She is concerned that “this will effectively mean that more students each year will feel as if they have failed.”
The exams will be phased in gradually over two years, which means that current Year 11 pupils will combine new exams in English and Maths with the older exam format for the rest of their subjects. Year 10 pupils will sit mostly new exams the following year, and by summer 2019, the expectation is that all subjects will be fully revised.
One implication of this is that employers will be faced with a mystifying combination of letters and numbers on the CVs of their youngest applicants who will have taken both types of exams. To add to the confusion, the new tiers of numbers do not directly relate to an equivalent letter [see table on page 40] so there’s no easy way to work out the new grades. With ‘9’ as the highest number, a ‘7’ might be seen as a disappointingly average mark, when in fact it’s the same as an old ‘A’. Dr Valentine also points out the surprisingly non-intuitive way the numbers are ordered: “A ‘1’ indicates the top award in a degree, but the bottom in a GCSE.”
The removal of coursework is another area for debate. Hayley Spurin, an experienced English teacher and now a PhD student in the field of psychology, points out that on one hand, this is a good thing, and will make the most of a good teacher’s strengths. “By not spending so much time on controlled coursework, teachers can utilise this time to cultivate a deeper understanding of their subject.” However, she is concerned that the exclusive focus on end-of-course examinations will discriminate against those less able to access the curriculum successfully, and potentially increase the stress and anxiety they experience. Dr Valentine adds: “It has long been argued that exam over coursework is the easiest way to guarantee that all students are treated equally. However, there are some students where exams are not the best way to assess progress and understanding, and they may lose out.” St Clement Danes is supporting students by practical approaches such as teaching memory technique, for example, which will suit the revised nature of the qualifications.
One of Gove’s most vocal critics, mental health champion Natasha Devon – who was controversially dropped from her role as government advisor after linking education policy to the steep rise in anxiety and depression amongst children – argues that the emphasis on high stakes testing is further undermining our children’s health and well-being. “The minister could have gone two ways when considering our place in international league tables,” she says. “He could have looked at Scandinavia – where we trail behind in literacy and numeracy – but where children don’t go to school until they’re eight, there is no homework and primary school children spend a significant part of their day learning through play. Instead, he turned to Korea [in order to model education policy], which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.”
Gove, in fact, is not only responsible for instigating a revision of exams for 16-year-olds, but also for bringing about an entire overhaul of curriculum reform from primary level to A-level, with the arguably admirable-but-ill-conceived intention of stepping everything up a notch at the same time. For example, A-levels will now include undergraduate level work, and 11-13 year olds (key stage 3 children) will now be tackling current GCSE level work. “This all requires an incredible amount of time for teachers to become acquainted with the changes,” says Drew Thomson, Head of Science at St Albans High, a selective, independent day school for girls. He tells me that he hasn’t been able to buy textbooks recently because course content is shifting so often. Exam boards offer online textbooks, but Drew describes these as largely unhelpful; student use of them is exceptionally poor, and the experience is dispiriting.
“Naturally, children will benefit if expectations and standards are raised and they are given the tools and time to be able to meet those,” he says. “The changes are not horrific, but the content and style of exam changes are significant and will require teachers to prepare students in different ways.”
Moreover – as another teacher, currently working in a maintained school, comments anonymously – while the youngest children coming through school should adapt fairly seamlessly to the changes, those sitting their GSCEs in the next couple of years will have missed out on a worrying amount of foundation knowledge that their younger peers will now be taught.
There is also criticism that a lot of the curriculum changes promote white, male privilege. “As an avid reader, I was not inspired by Chaucer and Dickens – I was inspired by Walker and Angelou,” says Hannah Wilson, Headteacher Designate of the newly formed Aureus School, a comprehensive academy in Didcot, Oxfordshire. “I am an English specialist but I have taught Media Studies and Drama; it concerns me how the arts are being pushed out of the curriculum. These are subjects that were celebrated when I was a child – and they were also the subjects I enjoyed the most.”
Andrew Hampton, Head of Thorpe Hall School, a non-selective co-educational establishment in Southend, sees the government’s attempt to effectively force pupils to study some subjects in preference to others as another major change. “The way in which the overall GCSE performance of each pupil is calculated… is complicated.” He sees a renewed emphasis on subjects such as French, Spanish, History, Geography and Religious Studies, and also regrets that Art, Music, Drama and Media Studies are apparently being edged out.
Hannah Wilson believes that when Gove argued for ‘more demanding, more fulfilling exams’ he was failing to differentiate between the two concepts. “I think more demanding and more fulfilling are a contradiction in terms. Yes, we need more challenge in the curriculum, but it needs to be more accessible and inspiring.” And, she points out, “a broad, deep and balanced education means different things to different communities, and will look different for individual children and schools.”
Only time will tell how the new changes will filter through public consciousness and how they will be accepted by the generation of young people they affect. Undoubtedly we all hope that the new, more demanding content will help our children to shine, and that it will enable them to be better prepared for university and life beyond. However, we must also trust that schools are sympathetically anticipating the increase in pressure that less academically-inclined children are facing, and, like St Clement Danes, are implementing positive strategies to support them.
As Hannah Wilson concludes: “Curriculum reform needs to be what is right for the learners, not for the politicians.” Indeed. Let’s hope that both are happy.