GCSE Reform – Again!

My normal default would be to give anything suggested by Gove an immediate raspberry.  But I think there appears to be a certain amount of sense in the latest GCSE reform ideas from what I’ve seen so far. Incidentally – the press, as ever, are reporting it all as if it’s a done deal, whereas in fact it’s a consultation document put out by Ofqual, who are holding events for people to have their say as well as inviting feedback by questionnaire.

Firstly, I do think it’s a very good idea to change the grades from letters to numbers to show there is a difference and no direct comparability – doing anything else would be unfair to those under the harsher system.

I’m very glad to see the back of GCSE modules too – they did fragment the learning and encourage a continual assessment focus.

I was initially very alarmed by the proposals to do away with tiering, which would have made exams in maths and science a nonsense – but I see they are now proposing to retain it where appropriate (which includes maths and science).  Fair enough if they want to tweak the exact structure- it’s changed a bit over time anyway – as long as the principle of having it is retained.

As for the exam focus – while I can see all sorts of theoretical advantages to including continuous assessment rather than relying on exams, the fact remains that too much cheating does go on  – either from the internet, or peers, or parental involvement, or teachers giving more help than permitted. The cheating doesn’t only advantage the beneficiaries, but also disadvantages the rest, as it skews the grade boundaries. We get a number of parents and students complaining that we insist on following the rules in our assessments, whilst friends and relatives at other schools enjoy a more lenient regime; we refuse to apologise for doing things properly, but I can understand why they feel frustrated and unhappy about getting relatively low marks on such things due to artificially inflated grade boundaries.  So a mainly exam-based system seems a sensible approach, as even though it may not always be the most valid way to assess, at least it should be reliable.

Oh dear, is it sounding like I’m joining the Gove fanclub?  Well, I’m not!  The man is still terminally wrong-headed in many respects (and the improved aspects here don’t come from him, anyway – it’s Ofqual who’ve done the work).

First bit of Gove idiocy (first in this post I mean – there must be so many examples generally…): – he seems to think that by making exams tougher you make kids cleverer. No you don’t, any more than measuring something frequently makes it grow longer!   Harder exams may encourage teachers to aim higher in developing kids’ understanding, possibly (though I think most teachers do try to get the best out of their pupils anyway, and I certainly don’t think things were better in that respect in the allegedly halcyon days of O-levels).  They may also – and indeed should – give a better picture of kids’ ability in and mastery of the subject than the current system.  But that’s it!

Second bit – this continual emphasis on memory work. You need to remember some things, yes, but they should mainly be principles, concepts, methods, approaches – not lists of facts that in any normal circumstance you could look up. Now I am no opponent of knowing random stuff – it’s very useful in pub quizzes after all!  And more seriously  – yes, if you are learning a subject properly, there will be quite a few facts that you will automatically know because you use them so much – it would be rather odd, for example, if I didn’t know the value of π approximately, or indeed a certain amount of the periodic table.  But that is a very different matter to sitting there learning facts for the sake of it.

I recently did an exam myself which was very reliant on factual recall. I did do my best to cram all the facts into my head – I am always stupidly perfectionist about exams, so didn’t feel there was any alternative.  But I resented it bitterly, and it took away from my normal focus on ensuring I really understood the principles involved because I was so intent on learning the minute detail.  Going back to when I was at school, I remember learning quotes for English Lit off by heart, and again, it was a distraction from what should have been the main focus.

I am not convinced about the timescale for the changes either. I am fortunate in teaching one of the subjects where I suspect things actually won’t change that much. My colleagues in English and History are in a rather different situation.  There never seems to be much appreciation of the fact that exam boards need time to consult with teachers, that teachers need time to plan and that a school curriculum is an integrated whole, so that if you are changing what you’re doing for GCSE you may well be changing Year 7 too.

I’ll try to get along to one of the consultation events to put my oar in (I have a strange liking for consultation events – something to do with my continued readiness to give my opinion on everything at a second’s notice perhaps?) – better check I can take the time off first, though!

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