GCSE Reform Proposals

As you may well be aware, the government has published details of a number of proposed changes to the GCSE system and invited us, through OfQual,  to express our views. Although our views will inevitably be ignored once again, it is important to try to tell the truth about the consequences of the proposals.

While the move away from modular exams should be welcomed by anyone involved in distance learning, there are other more worrying developments whcih will affect future generations of private candidates.

In my view, the proposed changes fail to address the single biggest problem with qualifications at GCSE  level – the difficulty of taking the exams for anyone outside the mainstream school system.

The rules for controlled assessment make it difficult or impossible for “irregular” students (including adult learners and the home-schooled) to enter for exams at all. Such students cannot satisfy the requirements for supervision and other aspects of “controlled assessment”.

In English (and other key subjects like Science, History and Geography), there are no GCSE specifications at all which dispense with the need for controlled assessment, because exam boards are not allowed to set such specifications in those subjects – I am sure they would like to!

The result is that adult learners are currently obliged to take IGCSE courses in those subjects, but that option will become fraught with problems, not for the current generation of students but ones who embark on study in future years. IGCSE is being effectively sidelined in the UK where it is being replaced with “Certificates” (as set by Edexcel and other exam boards) and in order for the Certificates to be accredited, a number of Certificate specifications, notably in English, must include coursework which itself is subject to stringent controls. In practical terms, this may well mean that examination centres (for the Certificate) are unable to allow entry to private candidates.

To take a typical example … an adult, employed in some other job, wishes to become a teacher and therefore to study for a PGCE. She then discovers that she needs a grade C in English GCSE to be accepted on a PGCE course but only achieved a D when she was at school. What can she do?

This year and next, it is possible to take an IGCSE instead, gain that grade C and become a teacher. In future, there will be no options available at all, or the ones that are left will be so fraught with difficulty that the adult will decide against such a career change after all. Similar problems will apply to Science GCSE and to numerous other career paths besides teaching.  Do we really want to close down such options for adults?

Several thousand students a year fall in to the different “irregular” categories and would be effectively excluded from the examination system.  These diverse groups lack a voice or effective representation but it is hugely unfair that they should be, in effect, excluded by this unfair one-size-fits-all policy.

There are a number of possible solutions, including the following:

  1. The government allows non-coursework GCSE specifications in subjects like English and History (just as they already do in such subjects as Maths and Psychology).
  2. The government allows non-coursework options within GCSE specifications, open to certain categories of candidate, e.g. distance learners,  for whom controlled assessment is impossible or inappropriate.
  3. The government relaxes the controlled assessment rules so that coursework is once again practicable for adult learners.
  4. The government accredits Certificates (or IGCSEs) that do not require coursework and ensures that success in such qualifications carries the same weight as success in the “regular” GCSEs, e.g. it facilitates access to PGCE courses and the like.

Option 4 is only a partial solution to the problem but a lot better than nothing. It is vital that one of these solutions is adopted now before the interests of many different categories of student are irreparably damaged.

In practical terms, any adults considering enhancing their GCSE qualifications would be well advised to get on with it, before the system changes!

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