Uncertainty Continues to Dog Secondary Examination Reforms

9 Apr

In under a term, schools/academies will be expected to introduce new curricular arrangements in 20 subjects for GCSEs and A and AS levels – a tsunami of educational reforms.   At the time of writing, Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications) has still to approve two-thirds of them – i.e. 104 out of 156 new specifications – in nine subjects at the AS and A Levels and 15 subjects for the GCSE examinations.   The GCSEs include the English Baccalaureate qualifications in the sciences, languages, geography and history.

Schools have been teaching the old qualifications and are getting impatient waiting for the new ones to arrive.  Over the Spring Term 2016, they were unable to buy textbooks.   Their pupils are choosing subjects with little knowledge of what they could entail.  Even though the pupils are in year 8, many schools begin the preparation for GCSEs early to lay the groundwork.

Many are puzzled about why the government wishes to implement the changes so fast.  This may have something to do with the next elections which are not that far away.  Accordingly, ministers want to be seen to doing something swiftly to make the examinations tougher.

Ofqual has come in for heavy criticism because of the delays, but has stressed that it does not want to decide in haste by rushing the specifications and repent at leisure.  It is keen to get the specifications right first time.  Ofqual is also under government pressure to make the papers more difficult. The government alleges that exam boards have been making the papers easier to gain a greater market-share.   However, the solution would be to scrap the three exam boards in England and replace them with one, but this has been rejected on a number of grounds.

In 2015, the three English exam boards and the one in Wales had to re-write the mathematics papers when it belatedly became apparent that some papers were too easy and others too hard.  Ofqual ended up with egg on its face. The upshot was that schools/academies learnt about the mathematics specifications a fortnight before the close of the academic year. Two weeks was all teachers had to prepare for the curriculum they would begin to teach the year 9 pupils of the academic year 2015/16.     This time around Ofqual does not want to suffer the same fate of having to review what the exams boards could do badly.  However, the delay is causing schools/academies much pain.

Meanwhile, many schools are using the guidance that the government has issued on content which is the basis on which pupils are being taught.  Teachers are using draft specifications with the health warning that they could be well off the mark.  For headteachers, the investment in time and money is risky and of considerable concern.

All new examinations will be graded from 9 (the highest grade) to 1 (the lowest, instead of the A* to G). This has also been problematic.  Teachers are uncertain about how to assess the standards of pupils on the new scale.  Ofqual has published grade descriptors for English and mathematics, which is being taught (and has been taught since September 2015).  However, there is nothing available for the new set of examinations.

Ofqual has become the fall-guy for the hasty examination reforms that the government is hell-bent on pursuing to demonstrate to all and sundry that it has grasped the nettle on standards.

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