GCSE reform: a rising tide of standards?

By Ben Durbin

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Yesterday marked the latest development in Michael Gove’s ongoing drive towards GCSE reform. Ofqual announced their latest set of proposals, responding to the Secretary of State’s letter from February setting out his vision for the new qualifications. In this letter he stated:

“At the level of what is widely considered to be a pass… there must be an increase in demand, to reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions. This is something we believe the vast majority of children with a good education should be able to achieve [and should be] achieved through a balance of more challenging subject content and more rigorous assessment structures.”

This implies a two-pronged strategy to achieving the laudable aim of improving educational achievement for all.

  1. More challenging subject content and a corresponding increase in the standard considered to be a ‘pass’.
  2. Changes to how this content is assessed.

Subject to an important caveat, the first prong in this educational pincer movement makes good sense. If the education we provide to our children is becoming ever higher in quality then we need the accompanying qualifications to keep up and be based on ever higher standards. It is necessary for GCSEs to remain relevant to students, schools, HE institutions and employers. But – and here’s the caveat – this is only the case if we are succeeding in providing an ever higher quality of education for all of our young people.

The government are putting plans in place designed to improve the quality of education such as the new curriculum, changes to teacher education, and expansion of the academies programme. However, until the benefits of these changes have time to work through the system, if indeed they do, a rising tide of subject ‘challenge’ risks leaving some stranded and in need of the educational equivalent of the coastguard.

But what about the second prong – “more rigorous assessment structures”? This is a different matter, and is concerned with more technical considerations of how one designs and structures a qualification to best assess a given subject. I’m concerned that even in the hoped-for scenario where all students are receiving a better education, the proposed changes will not give them all the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do. Worse, it could lead to further disengagement from education by some groups of students and so have the opposite to the desired effects.

We raised a number of these concerns in our response to the previous consultation back in December. In parallel we also published our own Think Piece that drew on an ongoing programme of research into young people at risk of disengaging from education. We pointed out the difficulties of removing tiers from subjects like mathematics (where difficulty varies by the questions themselves) which would result in each student being presented with a large number of questions at the wrong level of difficulty. Marking reliability and levels of engagement would be adversely affected, and so I’m pleased to see this element of the proposals has been dropped. However, plans remain to remove tiers from subjects such as English (where responses to individual questions can better differentiate ability). The issues here are less severe, however there remains a risk that questions applying to all students require such generic mark schemes that marking reliability is nevertheless compromised.

An area of concern that has not been fully addressed in the latest plans relates to the use of controlled assessment. Relying entirely on external examinations for English, maths and the humanities risks marginalising higher level skills such as planning, creativity and problem solving. Furthermore, our own research suggests that students at risk of disengaging from education often benefit and get a sense of reward from continuous assessment and regular accredited learning.

Assuming the changes go ahead, the good news is that our research suggests a range of additional measures which schools can implement to mitigate the risk of disengagement:

  • Using flexible approaches to teaching so that all learners are engaged and stimulated, delivered in an appealing way that interests the young person
  • Teaching that draws out relevance to life, including teaching in smaller class groups and provision of timely extra support or catch up tuition.
  • The use of expert teachers who know their subject area and pedagogical approaches
  • Warm supportive learning environments in which teachers show an interest in their students as well as a well managed and disciplined environment, and opportunities to develop a relationship with a trusted adult (who may not be the teacher)
  • A flexible and personalised curriculum that allows learners to take ownership of their decision making related to learning and includes opportunities to develop personal, social and employability skills.

If the tide of educational standards is rising, let’s make sure a new high water mark can be achieved by all of our young people.