AN OVERHAUL of GCSEs in England was announced this week by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
The controversial move has been widely criticised. Even the timing of the announcement – coming as it does during the GCSE exam season – was felt to be insensitive.
But it’s clear the Government intends to press ahead, after a short consultation period, and from 2015 GCSEs will lose their coursework content. Pupils will be examined at the end of two years of study and graded from 8 to 1, instead of the current A* to G.
There has long been talk of GCSEs being too easy. Critics point to evidence of grade inflation since they were introduced in 1986. In 1988 when the first candidates were examined under the new system only 41.9% got an A to C grade (there was no A* at the time).
Last year as many as 69.4% of candidates were awarded an A* to C.
While teaching bodies say they are not averse to the implementation of more rigorous exams they are critical of the speed of the changes. There is also concern that the Government has not gathered sufficient evidence to show the new system will raise standards.
The reforms will initially affect the nine core GCSE subjects and there will be no more modular courses or controlled assessments (coursework done under exam conditions). Pass marks will be higher and exams will be focussed on more stretching essay-based questions, reminiscent of the O levels that the GCSE system replaced.
Mr Gove told MPs on Tuesday that previous course specifications were too vague and had "caused suspicion and speculation that some exam boards were harder than others."
Pupils will be required to study more British history and write an in-depth study of an historical era. In English literature, exam questions will be designed to ensure that pupils have read the whole book and the course content will include at least one play by Shakespeare, work by Romantic poets, a 19th century novel and 20th century novel or drama.
Maths will focus around problem-solving skills.
Education Minister Elizabeth Truss has said: "We do need to start competing against those top performing countries in the world, because for too long we’ve pretended that students’ results are getting better, when all that’s been happening is the exams have been getting easier."
Head teacher’s leader Brian Lightman of the ASCL, said he was worried about syllabus changes.
"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."
The GCSE announcement came the same week that Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said a culture of low expectations is failing bright children in England’s non-selective secondary schools. League tables, he feels, are forcing teachers to focus attention on raising standards among lower-performing youngsters at the expense of the brightest.
However, the Government’s response has been to say that this problem can be tackled with its new and more demanding curriculum and exam system.
It seems that England will go it alone with the new GCSEs, as Wales and Northern Ireland will not be following suit and Scotland already has its own, unique system.
Employers organisations are guarded in their response to the changes. Commenting on this week’s announcement, Tim Thomas, head of employment and skills policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said: "With Britain lagging behind its international competitors in the skills race and, employers increasingly facing skills shortages, the government is right to focus on making GCSEs more rigorous. However, it must take care to avoid confusing students, parents and employers with unnecessary changes such as rebranding grades. Instead, it must focus relentlessly on raising the quality of teaching and making its content more rigorous and relevant."
TRADITIONAL GCSE grades will be axed and coursework drastically cut under a major shake-up from September 2015, which will also see teenagers study 19th century literature and more British history.
At the same time, England’s exams regulator Ofqual published proposals to revamp the structure of GCSEs which will see coursework severely curtailed in most subjects, and a brand new numerical grading system.
Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted the new GCSEs, due to be introduced in September 2015, will be “more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous”,
But one teachers’ leader raised concerns that the first group of teenagers to sit the “new and untested” exams are being treated like “guinea pigs”
BARRY SHEERMAN Labour MP for Huddersfield and a former chair of the Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families, engaged Mr Gove on the GCSE reforms in the House of Commons this week.
He knows the changes have angered the teaching profession and is critical that they are not based on reliable research.
"I said to him that while we recognise there is a need for change you need an evidence-based consultation. The way he is doing things is by disruptive innovation and if teachers are constantly demoralised by innovation then this is not the best way to go about it. You have got to keep with you the teaching profession, the students and the parents.
"Gove is reflecting on what happened to him at school, everyone has a tendency to do that. What we should be saying is: ‘Is there a research basis to this and does this work in another country like this one – and not Finland, somewhere like France or Germany’."
Mr Sheerman accepts that developing suitably rigorous exams and establishing reliable qualifications is extremely difficult, but he believes the current GCSEs have become too broad.
"They are trying to
evaluate a broad spread of talent and there has been a trend to want to not fail anyone so there is a broad spread of passes," he said.
"There should be the ability to take more practical subjects for a substantial number of kids who aren’t academic."
Teaching Union viewpoint: Hazel Danson
THE TIMING of the announcement was "appalling," says Hazel Danson, joint secretary for the NUT in Kirklees.
"Just imagine the impact on the young people who were doing their GCSE exams that day, thinking ‘here’s the Secretary of State for Education telling me that my exams are not rigorous enough and that we don’t have a world class exam system’. They will be wondering if their GCSEs in 2013 are going to disadvantage them."
She sees the current move as a "knee jerk reaction by a Government making policy decisions rather than evidence-based decisions".
"Changes to the curriculum and exam system have to be evidence- based so that our members, who have to deliver them, know that they will work and buy into the changes.
"This Government has no track record of consulting anyone. It’s just as if Mr Gove has thought to himself ‘this is what I did at school and it was good for me’.
"There are things that could be done that would be innovative but you can’t introduce anything in a heavy-handed way because it is so damaging.
"Teachers are not opposed to change and if there are problems with exams or a particular course work, for example, then there are ways to deal with it.
"Teachers work with exam boards all the time. They have committed their lives to raising educational standards, it’s what we all want."
As a primary school teacher Ms Danson has found herself delivering the Government’s new phonic initiative, which includes an examination in ‘nonsense’ words. She sees this as another example of an ill-thought-out and under-researched initiative: "A whole host of people are saying that it is a waste of money, the NUT is not a lone voice, but there is a frustration within education that politicians want to make their mark on education and ignore the experts."
Teaching viewpoint: Martin Rostron
MARTIN ROSTRON, principal of Huddersfield’s top-performing Greenhead College – currently number three among the country’s sixth-form colleges – believes the GCSE changes will further alienate the teaching profession.
"A majority of the profession are against the changes – it’s yet another change they are having to deal with," he said.
"Secretary of State after Secretary of State come up with political ideas and pick the bits of evidence that suit them. The teaching profession is often damned with faint praise and knocked about. People are reluctant to make changes when they are treated that way."
He feels that Mr Gove is not being objective in his reforms and added: "There seems to be a desire to return to some perception of the golden age of education."
Mr Rostron does, however, accept there is a need to change and update the GCSE system. Although Greenhead College accepts students on to A level courses who attained C grades at GCSE, he says there is a move nationally towards raising entry grades to a B minimum, a result of grade inflation.
"It’s a mixed picture. A lot of institutions are saying that they are not sure students are prepared for A levels – and, of course, universities complain that A levels aren’t preparing students for university," he explained.
"There are improvements to be made in GCSEs and A levels, there always will be, but one of the problems with politicians is that they tend to reform things bit by bit, instead of looking at the whole."
A former English teacher, Mr Rostron says the Government also has to understand that today’s students are living in a multi-media world.
"They don’t read books as much as they used to because they are using visual media more. We are always delighted when we get students who read a lot and our teachers do a fantastic job of enthusing the others – but people’s leisure time has changed."
He added that plans to remove coursework and modular exams will fail to improve learning.
"Coursework and frequent small exams mean that work is constantly reviewed and revised, instead of consigning everything to notes, swotting and then doing an exam at the end of two years, after which not much is remembered," he said.