In a society where exams play such a huge part in the lives of young people, it’s surprising that substantial reforms to qualifications in the UK are taking place without their consultation.
In a presentation at the British Educational Research Association annual conference in Belfast, I argued that this lack of student consultation on reforms to qualifications is a grave omission. Young people – both those who have already done exams and those about to sit them – can and should be asked for their views before changes are rolled out.
In mid-September, the qualifications regulator Ofqual announced a new consultation seeking views on a second phase of changes to GCSEs and A-level subjects including statistics, media studies and film studies. The views of young people have not been specifically sought out on these subjects – nor were they for subjects reformed in the first phase, some of which are already being taught in schools. This lack of participation by young people in the policy development is a missed opportunity.
Changes set in motion
Initial reforms of the GCSE and A-level curriculum, begun by the former education secretary Michael Gove, mean that some students who sat exams in summer 2015 already took very different exams to their peers a few years ahead of them.
Now, a cohort of students have just started GCSE and A-level courses this September with new content and new rules. These changes are certain to have major ramifications for young people’s future educational and employment opportunities.
There are new specifications for exams, based on revised subject content and assessment objectives in key subjects such as maths and English. These qualifications are now linear, assessed solely by examinations with no modules and in some subjects, no coursework assessment. At A-level, there will be a “de-coupling” of the AS-level exams pupils sit in Year 12 with the final A2 exams in Year 13, and a reduction in resit opportunities. Practical science assessment will no longer count towards students’ final grades.
Young peoples’ views ignored
Students have no history of any meaningful input into what reforms of these qualifications might look like. The last Labour government saw the promise of “student voice” as a crucial dimension to the successful implementation of many of its 14–19 initiatives.
But in the present landscape of reform, there is no direct policy that drives the government to carry out consultations with students. Many in-roads that were made into treating young people as equal decision-makers with regard to education policy have stalled.
These are worrying developments, specifically in terms of children’s rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory, stipulates that children and young people are rights holders and are entitled to engage in processes that affect them directly. This includes the development of policies and services (in this instance educational ones) through research and consultation.
But looking at the impact of assessment on young people in terms of rights is rare – and any real effort to enforce compliance with international children’s rights standards in the development of qualifications systems is rarer still.
Worried about their future
Through national research that has engaged with young people who were just about to do exams, we are beginning to know a great deal more about what they think about reforms.
During my 2012 research with nearly 250 students from across England they told us that examinations structured through modules (and re-sits) allow for any mistakes to be made better and take the stress off having to do everything in one sitting. Students thought that it was only fair to have a mixture of examinations and coursework because: “we don’t all like the same things”.
They felt insulted at the annual circus of debates in the media around falling exam standards, which they saw as degrading their own achievements. They were also concerned that changes to examinations are introduced “live”, rather than being piloted in advance, and felt their future successes might be “messed up” as a result. All of these changes could have considerable impact on their final grades and they argue this is too high a price to pay.
There are a number of ways that young people could be listened to more effectively. Qualification awarding bodies, the Department for Education and Ofqual could set up panels with young people so that their views can be fed directly into assessment design and implementation. Education officials and politicians could attend focused policy briefings with young people in order to obtain input into current debates. And there could be an attempt to reach out directly to students via social media to gauge their opinions on reforms.
But we should also ask young people what they think is the most effective way to engage with them directly, and change our practice accordingly. When it comes to reforming exams that form such an important step in any young person’s life, it’s vital that all students have their voices heard.