Having floated ideas about return to O-level style examinations and an English baccalaureate certificate, education secretary Michael Gove has given in to opposition and stuck with the GCSE. But the reforms that have been announced will nevertheless lead to significant changes.
Modular exams are for the chop, meaning that pupils will all need to take their exams at the end of the course. Grades will no longer be A* to G, but 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest and some coursework and other forms of assessment, such as oral examinations, are being replaced by written exams.
Exams in English, English literature and mathematics will change for first teaching in September 2015. Chemistry, biology, physics, combined science, geography, history, modern languages and ancient languages will change for teaching in 2016.
No more tiers
Removing modular exams and reducing (if not removing) coursework is a return to the past. Watch this space for resurgent arguments about examinations not being valid because life is not like sitting in an exam hall regurgitating what the teacher told you.
The change to the GCSE grading, with numbers rather than letters, is all about signalling a break from the past. There will be an additional grade at the top end so that we can discriminate more effectively between the top performers. A huge communication and training exercise will be needed so that teachers and students know what the grades mean and how to teach and learn to achieve them. Otherwise, we could again face the kind of problems caused by changes to the AS level in 2001. Employers, parents and the public will not understand the new system for a generation – until the parents and employers are the ones who took the new exams.
Last year, it turned out that Gove did not even realise that GCSEs were tiered. Under the current system, the top grades are not available to students who take the foundation tier exam. This led many to wonder if anyone in Westminster had ever met a person who had been entered for an examination in which the top grades were not even available.
Research shows that pupils are put into ability groups in mathematics based upon their primary school results and that very few of them change groups in their entire secondary school career. That means that your potential GCSE mathematics grade can be constrained very early on in life.
Now that Gove has worked out that this is happening, he has decided to move away from tiers, which is a welcome move. Mathematics exams could be set for the whole ability range and it is wrong-headed to think otherwise, but the mathematics community are not yet convinced.
Shaking up what is already shaken
Ofqual says these are the biggest changes to the exam system for a generation. With further changes on the way for A-levels, you can see the point, but governments and their agencies appear to be suffering from policy amnesia.
We had a huge change in A-levels when the curriculum was completely overhauled in 2000. Then, over the next ten years, a raft of GCSEs became modular. Let’s not forget either the big push for diplomas under the last government that required schools and colleges to work in partnership. Gove will naturally want to claim his impact upon the exam system, but most of the education ministers we have had over the last generation have been keen to make a splash on the exam system and the impact of their enthusiasm is clear.
We have had huge waves of reform, one after the other, and I seriously question whether they have been worth the effort. Just think of the scale of resources involved to make these changes. The policy documents at all levels of the education system need to change, people need to figure out what the changes mean for their part of the system, training needs to occur, teaching materials revised, new textbooks written and purchased, computer programs altered, and so the list goes on. If the changes resulted in valuable learning, fair enough, but do they?
The political cycle is shorter than the time it takes to make these changes, so ministers always want them to be made too fast. This means that only surface and structural aspects of the system can really change.
If you look at the content of exam papers, the questions don’t change all that much over time. The examiners who write the question papers have day jobs and get very little time to implement policy changes before exam season rolls around once more. When the last round of A-level reforms was introduced they had just three months. This means that, in reality, there is very little scope for innovation in the preparation of new exam papers and syllabuses.
And here we are again, an education secretary seeks to make his mark with massive reform. To truly improve the education system, we need generational thinking that goes beyond this stifling political cycle.