National Curriculum, Tests and Exams Set to Morph

2 Jan

In September 2013, Michael Gove published the new national curricular framework, following consultations.  Some aspects of this will come into force on 1 September 2014.  From 1 September 2015, the new national curriculum for English, mathematics and science will take effect for years 2 to 6.  English, mathematics and science for Key Stage 4 will be phased in from September 2015.  Background information on the review, including details of previous publication, can be found here.

The new mathematics GCSE (see here) will require a deeper and broader mathematics understanding.   It will provide students with coverage on ratio, proportion and rates of changes and there will be an expectation that students will provide clearer arguments for their answers.  All students who fail to reach a C grade will be required to continue studying mathematics post-16.

The English Language GCSE (see here) will, according to Gove, provide all students with a robust foundation of reading and good written English and with language and literary skills.   Altogether, 20% of the marks will be awarded for accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Where students take English Literature, they will engage in “high-quality texts across a range of genres and periods” – including Shakespeare, the works of nineteenth century novelists and poets of the Romantic era.  The new English Literature GCSE will build on this foundation and encourage students to “read, write and think critically”.  

(1)       Publication of Information

Meanwhile, the government will require secondary schools to publish core information about how well the pupils are doing and have done on their websites in standard format, using four key measures:

(i)  pupils’ progress across eight subjects, so that a parent will see whether pupils at a school typically achieve one grade more than expected, or one grade less;

(ii) the average grade a pupil achieves in these same ‘best eight’ subjects to show, for example, that pupils in a particular school average a high B grade or a low D grade in their GCSEs;

(iii)       the percentage of pupils achieving a C grade in English and mathematics; and

(iv) the proportion of pupils gaining the English Baccalaureate, which will continue in its current form.

The government intends to include a destination measure to show the percentage of pupils

who move on to further study or employment – including further training.

(2)            Floor Standards

David Laws, the Schools Minister, announced that the government is bringing in an important change to floor targets to deal with schools that underperform.  Rather than the 5 A* to C GCSE threshold measure, the government will use a new progress measure.

Pupils’ Key Stage 2 results, achieved at the end of primary school, will be used to set a reasonable expectation of what pupils should achieve in their GCSEs. Schools will get credit where pupils outperform these expectations. Children who get As when they are expected to attain Bs, or Ds when they are expected Es, will score points for their school.

Coasting schools will no longer be let off the hook. Equally, headteachers will no longer feel penalised when they have actually performed well with a challenging intake but attainment levels are below the national averages.

Pupils’ progress and attainment will be assessed in eight subjects: English and mathematics, three further EBac subjects (i.e. history, geography, the sciences and a language), and three other high-value qualifications. This final group can include further traditional academic subjects, subjects such as art, music and drama, and vocational subjects, such as engineering and business. English and mathematics will be double weighted to reflect the importance of these subjects.

The government intends to define the new floor standard as progress half a grade lower than reasonable expectations. So, if pupils at a school are expected to average a B in their eight subjects, the school will be below the floor if they average fewer than 4 Bs and 4 Cs.

At present, there are 195 schools below the floor standard. Using existing figures, the estimate is that around twice as many schools would be below this new floor standard.

However, as schools adjust their curriculum to the new framework the actual number could be significantly lower than this.

(3)       Employers’ Reactions

The Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI’s) reactions to Gove’s reforms have been unfavourable.   John Cridland, the head of the CBI, remarked that the excessive focus on examination results risks squeezing out a rounded education.

Business leaders want schools to pay more attention to creativity, curiosity, tenacity, self-confidence and good manners, in addition to high academic standards.  Cridland was critical of the government’s post-16 vocational reforms as a “fog”. He added that he was confused by Gove’s intentions.   However, he praised the GCSE and A level plans which sought to add to add tougher content and the more challenging end-of-course examination.

What he thought was conspicuous by its absence was the failure to link this to the broader “rounded and ground” qualities which business seeks of young people.  The CBI wanted a bigger emphasis on character-building to foster qualities such as determination, optimism and emotional intelligence.  The reforms risked causing schools to move away from sport, the performing arts, trips and clubs.

Cridland said: “When I walk into a really inspirational institution there is a whole educational experience and all the components of that school contribute to that educational experience.” He criticised the government for removing the requirement on schools to offer work experience for pupils at 15 or 16 and for making them responsible for career guidance without extra funds or support to do it well.

He wants Ofsted to judge schools more broadly taking account of students’ extra-curricular experiences rather than focusing chiefly on exam and test results.

He thought that it would be invaluable for teachers to have broader experiences, with the prospect of being seconded into industry.  “It would help if more teachers and headteachers had experience outside the classroom.  We should try to encourage that so they don’t go from school to university to teacher training, back into the classroom without having stepped out of the education world into the world they are helping to serve.”

However, he praised the government for trying to improve technical education with plans for a Technical Baccalaureate at 18, combining a vocational qualification, extended mathematics, a project and work experience.

(4)       Closing Thoughts

There is much to commend the measures that Gove is taking to raise standards in the country.  In his attempts to make that delicious and well-garnished educational omelette, it will be inevitable that he will have to crack a few eggs and upset some egg-heads. The examination reforms are part of the change agenda.   I have three reservations, notwithstanding.

(a)        First, Gove is deciding in haste.  Bringing about educational change requires pilot studies.  We then learn from them, fine-tune, implement and finally embed good practice.  The Secretary of State is not bothering to do that and operates like a man a hurry.   One can understand. The next elections are fewer than 18 months away.  But then, will he repent at leisure and leave the nation’s schools and his successor to pick up the pieces?

(b)        Second, the United Kingdom is renowned for being a world leader in Music, Art, the Performing Arts, Design and Technology.   In the curriculum that Gove is setting out, these either hardly feature or when they do are given much less prominence than the dominant core subjects of English, Mathematics and the Sciences.  The weighting given to the core subjects makes for a lob-sided, education see-saw.

(c)        Finally, when Gove took up the reigns of office, he trumpeted that he was going to frame an agenda that would allow schools the freedom to take initiatives and innovate, plough their own furrows and by so doing, strive for excellence.  In fact, state schools are becoming increasingly constrained by the diktats of government.   Even academies and free schools, which are not required to follow the national curriculum, do so to save their skins when inspected by Ofsted or putting their children through their paces in preparing them for the SATs and GCSEs.  The freedom Gove has given schools is the length of a solid iron chain tied to a sturdy post sited in Sanctuary Buildings.

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