Some thoughts on this week’s GCSE reforms

The announcement that only the first GCSE grade awarded to each pupil will count in school league tables is going to have an immediate and significant impact on secondary schools. In the interest of full transparency I should probably say up front that I support the changes – if you are looking for searing criticism of the reforms which neatly situates them within Gove’s alleged attempt to make children fail then I suggest you try the TES. That caveat aside, here are my thoughts on the changes.

1. The current system is absurd

As with any policy announcement attention is being focussed on what the potential negative consequences might be. Whilst this is perfectly legitimate we should not lose sight of quite how absurd the culture of early entries has become. In many schools it is common practice to enter an entire year group early and then selectively re-enter pupils who don’t get the expected grade. Not only does this double (let’s assume they are only entered twice!) the stress on pupils and narrow the focus of teaching at Key Stage 4, it also damages some students chances of getting the best grade possible. Students who get a solid grade B, for example, are often not encouraged by schools to sit the exam again. They then end up with a grade that is lower than they would have got had they sat the exam a year later. I recently spoke to two Year 12 students who had just started their Maths and Further Maths A-levels. Despite being exceptionally bright they were finding it tough for the understandable reason that they hadn’t studied maths for a year. Having been entered a year early and having got a good grade in the subject the school then made them spend Year 11 focussing on other subjects instead. Beyond anecdote research on the effects of early entry is limited, but statistics released by the DfE earlier this year shows a correlation between early entry and low performance*.

2. The timing is unfortunate

The timing of the announcement has been criticised. Many schools have already entered students for exams in November which they may now have to pull out of at some cost. Moreover, most schools have planned around the old system and are now going to find themselves being held to account (via league tables) under a different system. This is unfortunate. However, my sympathy with these criticisms only goes so far. First, I find it difficult to think of a time when the announcement could have been made without the timing being lamented. The summer would have been ideal but no doubt critics would have claimed that Gove was ‘devaluing’ the qualifications just as pupils were about to get their results. Second, if you accept that the current system is damaging then there is surely an imperative to change it quickly. It might have been easier for schools to delay the changes until 2016 but it would have meant another cohort of students being forced through the early entry machine. In this instance the unfairness of not giving schools fair warning is the lesser of two evils.

3. The ‘loophole’ might be significant (or not)

The Guardian reported today that headteachers had identified a potential loophole in the changes because it will still be possible to enter students for the same subject multiple times using a different exam board. Time will tell whether this is going to be a problem. I suspect that at least at first it is not going to be efficient for schools to enter students for different exam boards because there are subtle differences between the content and assessment for each exam board. I’m by no means an expert on this so I’d be interested to know in which subject’s people think there is sufficient similarity for it to be viable for schools to do this. It is possible that in the longer term exam boards might adapt to what schools by reducing the differences between the qualifications they offer. It will be interesting to see if the DfE has a plan to prevent such convergence.

4. Gove’s approach to reform is still misguided

Although I disagree with some of his policies my main problem with Gove is still one of process. He seems to be under the impression that it is still possible to fundamentally transform the education system even if he completely alienates the teaching profession. This is misguided: you can’t properly change a system without some support from those working in it. This is hard enough to achieve in education because so many of the interest groups are fiercely dogmatic and unaccustomed to constructive engagement. However, Gove’s rhetoric about the ‘enemies of promise’ and the evil education establishment make the task even more difficult. So does using the word ‘cheating’ to describe the practice of early entries. Gove is more than clever enough to carefully select the words he uses and yet again it seems his aim was to create controversy and anger parts of the education establishment. This is counterproductive.

* Obviously this does not necessarily suggest a causal relationship, and in any case I would be reluctant about using research conducted by the DfE as evidence in favour of a reform being introduced by … the DfE!

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