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Michael Gove’s statement on replacing GCSEs – first thoughts

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Blog - Michael Gove’s statement on replacing GCSEs – first thoughts

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Having read Michael Gove’s much hyped statement in the House of Commons yesterday on the reform of examinations for 16 year olds, I offer a few first reactions. The statement can be read at www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a00213908/oral-statement-ks4-exam-reform .

Positives

  • Unlike many education reforms, there is a sensible timescale – not until 2017 for new exams in English, Maths and Science, later still for others. This means no change until after the next election and plenty of time for planning and preparation
  • Abolition of controlled assessment and coursework in English, Maths and Science: a mixed blessing. Coursework can be laborious for students and teachers, and sometimes tests perseverance and/or support as much as it does knowledge and understanding, but in other cases it is an important addition to the exam and assesses things which do not lend themselves to a timed test. There is none in maths anyway. There is a sensible recognition that there will need to be flexibility about practical work, which will presumably mean that in science there will be scope for assessed practicals. Will speaking and listening in English be a practical?
  • Abolition of higher and foundation tiers – generally a good thing, though real expertise in assessment design will be needed to create a fit-for-purpose test for the whole range. Only some GCSEs have tiers anyway – history, for example, does not
  • One exam board per core subject: I would welcome taking this aspect of competition out of the examination system, and I have been very dubious about exam boards operating as profit making companies. This change will not alter that, but it will be a stricter regulation on the effects of exam boards’ commercialism. Read the ‘corrupt’ reference in Michael Gove’s statement carefully: it is the boards who are accused of corruption, not the teachers
  • Reference to the ‘dated mindset of fixed abilities which great teaching can’t change’. I totally support this view, and some sections of the media need to hear and hopefully understand this – they endlessly refer to ‘bright children’ and ‘the less able’ as if these were set in stone at birth. They are not, and as Michael Gove says, great teaching enables young people to know and understand more whatever the starting point
  • ‘We have the best generation of teachers and headteachers we have ever had’ – good to hear that recognised, because it is true
  • There is a recognition that there will need to be special/enhanced provision for the students who can’t be ready for these qualifications – I would cautiously welcome this recognition, though see below for further caveats
  • Commitment to consultation with professionals – this is a good thing, because so far these reforms feel somewhat as if they have been agreed by politicians behind closed doors with little experience of working in schools
  • ‘These reforms are radical’ – actually, they don’t really seem it to me. The rhetoric is, but what is being proposed is actually quite modest in timescale, with plenty of opportunities for changing the pace and influencing the content between now and the first set of new exams in 2017, and then only in the three core subjects
  • There is a promise to consult on replacing league tables, and recognise best vocational achievement as well as academic, and help the poorest – not sure how that will develop, but it is interesting that this pledge is there and I would welcome it

Not-so-positives

  • There is a rather sweeping statement about headteachers choosing ‘soft options’ in order to push themselves up performance tables – I think this is rare, and most of the heads I know are completely committed to doing the best for their students in their specific contexts, regardless of what the league tables say
  • Michael Gove proposes the total discontinuation of modules (bite-sized tests) – in some cases a modular structure can be the only way to get a learner lacking in confidence to engage with a course or subject and gradually gain in self confidence. University courses, incidentally, are often modular in structure. Modules also enable there to be an element of choice, for example in history, where there are many different topics. With a single exam for all in history everyone would have to do the same periods or topics!
  • There is no reference in the statement to the importance of planning the course which leads to the assessment. We already have an education system which is very examination-dominated, and without proper attention to planning what we believe we should teach young people the risk is that the exams will dominate school life even more
  • There is a real risk that in an effort to be rigorous, and because of the challenges of designing a test which suits the whole range of attainment, the proportion of those who can’t take the new qualification will increase and we will end up with a more divided system and that those who are below the line sink. And remember: in international comparisons we are brought down by the bottom of the range who do much less well here than in other countries – the rest compares quite well internationally
  • I worry that this is a missed opportunity for deeper reform. We do not seem to be asking the question about the purpose of major testing at the age of 16. It would be interesting to look at Kenneth Baker’s ideas about assessment at 14 and 18, and not 16 any longer. It would be unfortunate if this was a missed opportunity
  • To be honest, there is nothing being proposed which could not have been done under the GCSE brand. GCSE has evolved enormously since it began, and there is nothing to stop there being tighter controls on coursework or more rigorous questions in the existing GCSEs. We must guard against discrediting the GCSE brand completely – students in year 8 and above will still be taking them between now and 2017
  • Given the fiasco in grading GCSEs this year, it seems strange that Michael Gove trusts Ofqual to play an important role in regulating the new system! Some major changes will be needed there if that is to happen.

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