It looks like it is to be ‘all change’ again with simultaneous reforms of both GCSE and ‘A’ level. Over the next three years we are likely to see the largest overhaul of the public exams system since the introduction of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in the 1950s. Politicians have convinced themselves that GCSE is fundamentally flawed, and that change is essential. To many of us in schools this preoccupation with exams is baffling, as there are more serious issues to address.
This country has many educational problems including acute teacher shortages in science, maths and technology, low levels of take up in foreign languages, barely any serious Computer Science, and if strike threats are to be believed a demoralised teaching profession. Add to these poor levels of literacy and numeracy amongst some primary pupils, and insufficient opportunities for activities such as sport, music, drama and outdoor pursuits that develop students’ character and the educational “to do” list is quite long. Reforming the exam system is not an obvious top priority for school leaders. Political pressure to halt grade inflation led to this summer’s GCSE debacle, but taken as a whole GCSEs and ‘A’ levels still work. Yes they could be improved, but most candidates achieve the qualifications they deserve and statistical analysis shows that public exam grades remain the best prediction of university performance.
Politicians think differently. Big bang reforms of exam systems grab media headlines and provide evidence of political action. Those who worry that their modest ‘O’ level results have been devalued by GCSE grade inflation applaud an apparent return to the rigour of the 1980s. The introduction of ‘Gove-levels’ may win votes, but their impact on educational attainment is far from certain.
Time and money spent re-writing exam specifications, is time and money not spent on addressing other educational problems. We already spend far more than most other countries on assessing children, and this figure is only likely to grow as schools and exam boards prepare for the latest in a long line of changes.
The changes themselves have a retrograde feel. The return of three hour exams at the end of a course may sounds rigorous but doesn’t prepare students for life in the real world where continuous assessment rules. How many employees get given a two year project with no intervening deadlines and a terminal test?
Terminal exams far from raising standards can depress them. Most teachers would agree that the very best work done by pupils occurs in coursework projects, where free from exam time constraints, pupils can explore topics in depth and develop sophisticated thinking. At The Perse some of the finest examples of scholarship are found in the GCSE and ‘A’ level extended project qualifications, where pupils complete an original research project by devising their own titles, refining a research methodology, writing an essay, presenting it to a seminar and fielding questions. It is a far cry from the rote learning associated with old style ‘O’ levels.
Mr Gove’s English Baccalaureate values the core subjects of English, Maths, Science, Languages, History and Geography at the expense of other disciplines. Is it right in a hi-tech twenty first century that there is no place for Computing, or that in a multi faith society we overlook Religious Studies? As we saw with the Olympic Opening Ceremony, some of Britain’s most successful industries lie in the creative arts but there is no place for Music, Art or Drama in Gove’s curriculum core.
Educational reforms are vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences. Witness this summer’s debacle over grade deflation. The reduction in ‘A’ level grades has meant fewer candidates with AAB+ or equivalent than universities expected. As a consequence some well regarded universities are unable to fill their places.
The devil will lie in the detail of the Gove proposals, but even before they are published my heart sinks at the prospect of even more time spent on debating assessment rather than improving teaching and learning. Assessment should be the ‘quality control’ final check on what schools and their pupils do, but it is becoming the tail that wags the educational dog.