Today the exams regulator Ofqual has confirmed a list of changes it is making to GCSEs, in what it calls “the biggest shake-up of exams in England for a generation”.
The headlines have been grabbed by a new grading system which will use numbers instead of letters and the announcement that coursework is being scrapped for most subjects.
Glenys Stacey says: “for many people, the move away from traditional grades, A, B,C and so on, may be hard to understand. But it is important. The new qualifications will be significantly different and we need to signal this clearly.”
The change to a numerical scale is a nonsense – it is the equivalent of calling a spade a shovel. It will have exactly the same effect of dividing candidates into eight or nine compartments as in the old system. All it will do is confuse employers and higher education providers as they struggle to make comparisons between similarly-qualified candidates in years to come.
What matters far more is the number of students in each of these eight or nine compartments. Will there be equal numbers or will there be a bulge around the 7 or 8 mark? As before, exam groups and their political paymasters reserve the right to make those decisions behind closed doors, manipulating grade boundaries to fulfil political objectives. There is still no sign of effective external (or international) benchmarking, so in many ways this is an opportunity missed and it is likely that British students will remain close to the bottom of international league tables in key subjects.
But there are some more significant changes in the detailed plans for key subjects like Maths and English. In the case of Maths, there are indeed some more difficult topics. Higher level candidates are required to work with inverse functions and composite functions. They will need to be able to find the equation of a tangent to a circle at a given point. They must apply the concepts of average and instantaneous rate of change (gradients of chords and tangents) in numerical, algebraic and graphical contexts. These are skills not currently required by the GCSE specifications although most are to be found on the equivalent IGCSE and Certificate specifications set by Edexcel and Cambridge. It has been suggested that there will be 50% more “content” on the new GCSE specification. The true figure is perhaps closer to 10-15% but it represents a significant step nonetheless and it remains to be seen how the teaching profession will address these requirements without too many weaker students falling by the wayside.
Turning to English and English Literature, there are again a number of significant changes. Perhaps most importantly, tiering will disappear so candidates of all abilities will face the same exams. This makes sense to me as long as those exams are sensitively set with questions that allow candidates of all abilities to show off their abilities to the full. In English GCSE, there will be a greater focus on grammar, using standard English appropriately and developing vocabulary. Spoken language will be reported on as part of the qualification, but it will not form part of the final mark and grade. This will make the results fairer, I believe, as internally-assessed oral performance is too subjective and susceptible to positive teacher-bias. There will be “challenging” texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The focus on comprehension and summary skills is reminiscent of the the old English ‘O’ level.
For those taking English Literature GCSE, study of “high quality” literature is the principal focus. GCSE specifications will be designed on the basis that students’ reading “should include whole texts”. But most current GCSE specifications entail the study of whole texts, so this is not a major change. The difference, if any, is in the number and length of the required texts. The official “high quality” canon is very sharply defined:
Not since FR Leavis held sway over literature teaching has there been quite so clear a decision on what is in and what is out. It will please lovers of nineteenth-century fiction and Romantic poetry, like myself, but may lead in years to come to a somewhat blinkered view of what literature has to offer. Everyone will have heard of William Wordsworth and no one will have experienced the joys of reading John Donne’s poetry, to take one example. In its own way, this is a kind of social engineering, micro-managed by the state.
Neither of these DfE documents mentions coursework or controlled assessment. Will English go the same way as Maths, with candidates given the opportunity to complete a GCSE without coursework and internal (controlled) assessment, as they are with the IGCSE and the Certificate? Boys may be the ones to benefit most from an exam-only format but overall I think the exam-only option offers a truer test and a fairer means of assessment. To avoid gender bias, we should allow exam boards, schools and individual candidates to choose between a variety of assessment formats, so that each can choose the system that suits them best. Now that we are cutting back on the number of exam-sittings, the number of possible re-takes and the number of tiering options, it seems vital to allow choice in this respect, at least, or we will create a wholly regimented exam factory which is not in society’s long-term interests.
Nick Smith (Dr)
Principal, Oxford Open Learning