One of the largest programmes of simultaneous examination reforms is about to hit English schools, with both the GCSE and A level poised to undergo an overhaul. Describing the range and pace of the proposed changes as ‘ambitious’ would be an understatement – the GCSE is to become more challenging and to be marked using a new nine-point grade scale, while the A level moves from modular to linear.
The first new qualifications are scheduled for teaching in September 2015. Whatever your opinion about the reforms themselves, the latest indications are that final details about the qualifications will not be available until this autumn, almost immediately after which schools must start publishing details of 2015/16 course structures to would-be entrants. This gives them next to no time to consider their response and advise students (and their parents) what all of this means for curriculum choices and university entry.
History suggests that in the immediate aftermath of changes to the examination system two things happen: pupil attainment falls and assessment becomes less reliable – two significant negatives, neither of which should come as a surprise to anyone seeking to learn from past experience.
Starting with the classroom, when a new qualification is introduced or an existing one significantly changed, teachers need feedback from the exam board on how candidates have performed – something that can only be given after the first exams have been sat and marked – to allow them to refine their teaching. Pupil attainment would therefore naturally be lower for the couple of years following the reforms. This creates a headache for exam boards wanting to ensure grade parity – it would not be fair for those candidates who have the misfortune to be the first to sit the new or revised exams to do worse than their predecessors based purely on timing. Exam boards typically adjust the grade boundaries temporarily to address this artificial decrease in pupil attainment, but if this is to be the case during these reforms it is essential for the short-term fix to be removed at the right moment to avoid the very grade inflation the reforms apparently seek to address.
Moving to assessment, accurate marking and grading depend on clear standards being set, and these standards in turn need to be based on information about how candidates of varying abilities have performed in the past. Such historic comparisons can be accurately made for longstanding qualifications where there are lots of prior data on student attainment. They are less easy for new or reformed exams. Less data can lead to more volatile grading as markers and their team leaders apply new schemes and standards for the first time. We can expect a greater number of seemingly odd performances and disputes about grading as a result.
So the next few years of examination turbulence will not be easy for students, schools and exam boards as the reformed exam system beds in. Nor will they be easy for universities and employers struggling to make sense of the results achieved, both in themselves andrelative to the grades that have gone before. To make matters worse, as these changes will be phased in on a subject-by-subject basis between 2017 and 2019, there are likely to be differences in grading between reformed and yet to be reformed GCSE subjects to contend with too.
Quite scary? Seemingly not scary enough to get Mr Gove to think again. Ministers have set the course, and it seems schools will just need to get on with it. Independent schools will rise to the challenge, and with their high staffing ratios, more planning time and financial strength they are better equipped to participate in comprehensive staff training and provide the additional student support structures to make the best of the difficult transition years.
Independent schools also have another advantage – their very independence. There are no ministerial restrictions on the qualifications that independent schools can select for their students. If Mr Gove’s reforms work wonders for A levels independent schools can adopt them; if they do not we can go with the Pre U, IB, or International A level – all very well-respected and stable alternatives.
Even without the exam system turbulence this choice has strong benefits. As in most things in life, one size rarely fits all, and different subjects and different pupils have varying assessment and learning needs. No one qualification or approach to learning and assessment is best for all students in all subjects. So for example maths is a ‘building block’ subject well-suited to modular assessment, whereas in music and modern foreign languages a linear approach helps students build skill gradually over time. In addition, coursework is not something to be avoided in all subjects – indeed in some disciplines like geography, coursework in the form of fieldwork is fundamental to good learning.
Here at The Perse, free from government control, we can use our pupil-centred independence to create a varied exam menu. Our Heads of Department, as subject leaders, pick the exam qualification that will best enable students to progress as far as possible while with us. We prioritise critical thinking, rigour and challenge in our selection, thus already offer a mix of A level, Pre-U, International A level, International GCSE and GCSE courses. This variety is not only in the best interest of our students’ intellectual development but, by ensuring that all of our exam eggs are not in the one proverbial basket, also provides us with shelter from some of the current exam reform storm. A good place to be.