Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards

To date school leaders have not been consulted over the development of the new GCSE syllabuses so it is highly premature to design new qualifications before this consultation has been finalised. It is now time for our legitimate voice to be listened to carefully and acted upon.

By Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman

My first thought when I turned on the news yesterday morning was for all the young people who were sitting exams. With yesterday’s announcements on GCSE reform from Ofqual and the new GCSE subject content from the DfE, words and phrases like ‘rigour’, ‘grade inflation’ and ‘dumbing down’ have been flying around in a whirlwind of emotive discourse.

To be told by the minister over the breakfast table that the exams they have spend hours and hours studying for are “a race to the bottom” does our young people a huge disservice.

We all agree that we need to maintain rigour in the education system – and yes, this means reviewing and reforming GCSEs to keep pace with the 21st century – but rigour is about  what a literate young person should know, understand and be able to do at the age of 16, rather than how many marks constitute a grade C.  

The fact that the pass rate has slowly crept up does not by default equate to dumbing down. Top athletes are now regularly running the mile in under 4 minutes – is this because the mile has become shorter?

Setting aside the unhelpfully emotive and negative language being used to justify the reform of GCSEs, let’s take a look at the proposals themselves. We have always agreed that it is the right time to review the GCSE exam itself, and on first read most of the changes proposed by Ofqual seem sensible. Keeping tiered papers in maths and science is logical, as these subjects are progressive in their content and therefore there is no benefit to more advanced students using exam time to answer basic level questions.

Retaining controlled assessment in subjects where it is the best method of assessing, such as science practicals, is also sensible. However, creating one untiered examination for all students, from those with learning difficulties to potential Oxbridge candidates, is an immense challenge with no guarantee of success.

The new exams will be significantly different so changing to a numerical grading scale will help avoid confusion with employers and universities over which exams a student has taken.

However, where we have the greatest concerns is in the DfE’s proposed syllabi. Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards or mean that students will be prepared for a job. The curriculum should stretch and challenge the highest achieving students but it must also engage and motivate those who struggle at the other end.

Harking back to a bygone era by replicating O levels, which were designed for a very narrow cohort in a completely different economic context, is certainly not the way to a world-class education service.

Another concern is the short timescale for implementation and vast amount of change schools and students are having to cope with all at once. The problems with last year’s GCSE English were not caused by the fact that they were modular, but by a rushed and poorly planned implementation.

Today’s report by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee about the 2012 GCSE English results made very clear the risks of poor implementation and inadequate consultation, and it issued strong warnings to the government about this.

To maintain public trust in GCSEs it is absolutely essential that time built in to plan, test and implement new qualifications properly. Lessons must be learnt from the past.

To date school leaders have not been consulted over the development of the new GCSE syllabuses so it is highly premature to design new qualifications before this consultation has been finalised. It is now time for our legitimate voice to be listened to carefully and acted upon.

2 Responses to “Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards”

  1. abadam

    More demanding curriculums will leave students less time to be young[was Gove ever young?]Education is about encouraging people to think.A demanding prescriptive education will churn out drones for the market,content with socialised consumerism and too self-invested/obsessed/absorbed to make waves.Do we live to work,or work to live?

  2. treborc1

    If you asked Miliband he would say we live to work…hence we need £68,000 for all the hard work we do…

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