A Nightmare in the Examination Hall

GCSEs! They’re terrible, aren’t they? Unfit for purpose? They must be, because the press told us so (ably assisted by various strategically placed press releases from the Education Secretary). Children the country over are suffering after unfair changes to grade boundaries left thousands with a D when previous benchmarks would have left them with a C. Proof, if proof be need be, that the entire GCSE system (introduced in 1988 by the Conservative Party, of all people) is entirely corrupt and unfair, right?

What EXACTLY is the problem this year?

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GCSEs are far from perfect, but as usual, the press (and the government) were (perhaps deliberately) telling a very simplistic and generalised version of what was going on.

According to my scouring of the TES forum on results day, and government regulator Ofqual’s official report, the issue of the changed grade boundaries affected two out of three GCSE English qualifications only. English Literature was unaffected, while English Language and English Language and Literature had problems. But only at the Foundation (lower) Tier, apparently (all those worried about introducing a “two-tier education system” might want to remember that GCSEs already do this). And, of three major exam boards across England, only from two of them (“primarily AQA and Edexcel”, says Ofqual).

To put that into perspective, that means that, out of dozens of subjects being examined, this problem affected only one. And that one has, in essence, eighteen separate qualifications (three English qualifications across three major boards, Foundation and Higher Tier for each), of which four were at fault. And each of those four was made up of three modules, not all of which had the grade boundaries dramatically shifted. Suddenly doesn’t look like the damning critique it appeared, does it?

The other issue that all the papers fail to mention is that these particular GCSEs were being awarded for the first time this year, initially by a small group in January then a much larger one in June. Under such circumstances, it’s fairly common for government regulator Ofqual (and their predecessors QCA) to send an observer to the awarding meetings where grade boundaries are decided, in order to monitor standards.

Ofqual’s initial assertion as to the reason for this issue is that the standard was set wrongly in January. It suggests that Ofqual weren’t properly monitoring the awarding in that first series for the new qualifications, which would be unusual. Equally, the boards concerned must have some culpability for setting the boundaries generously themselves, but Ofqual’s monitoring of this is the final arbiter, and the very reason for its existence.

This rather gives the impression that they allowed the first awarding of a new qualification to either be monitored sloppily, or not monitored at all. Ofqual is a fairly new and untried regulator, rushed into existence with alarming haste by the incoming Coalition government in 2010. With this in mind, you start wondering whether it’s the exams that are the problem, or the purported guardian of their standards. Of course, that’s all a bit fiddly for a big, emotive press story about children being unfairly treated by the thousand, and doesn’t fit the political narrative.

What should we do, Mr Gove?

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So, after a couple of weeks scandal, Mr Gove (Education Secretary and part time Pob lookalike) has given us his verdict on What Should Be Done with GCSEs. And unsurprisingly, his judgement based on all the evidence is… to do what he always said he wanted to do anyway.

So, a new ‘English Baccalaureate’ (must be good, it sounds classy), comprising the core subjects of English, Maths and the Sciences, each to be tested in one humongous three hour exam at the age of sixteen, with no more coursework. And each subject to be administered by only one exam board each, to combat the (apparent) problem of competition driving standards lower.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’m no fan of the current government (not that I have a lot of time for the Opposition either), but taking a step back from partisan politics, is any of this a Good Thing? And more pertinently, if it is, for whom is it Good?

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To take the latter point of Gove’s plans first – no more competition between exam boards? I actually think that’s rather a good idea. It’s a bit of a first for a Tory minister to acknowledge that the great god competition actually lowers standards in any situation; perhaps they could try extending that philosophy to the likes of water supplies, railways, bus services…

Still, I digress. It always seemed a nonsense for any real competition to exist when all of the competitors must, essentially, supply the same product meeting the same standards. The press narrative for a couple of years now has been that boards can only compete by offering “easier” exams, thereby giving schools a greater proportion of good results and a better place on the league table.

This is, generally speaking, bullshit. When the government’s standards regulator is doing its job properly, it must ensure that all qualifications in the same subject at the same level offer a parity of challenge. Put simply, if anyone’s caught offering an exam that’s “easier” than anyone else, they face potentially losing the ability to offer it at all. It’s quite common for disenchanted schools, facing a year of bad results, to take their business to another board – only to find next year’s results just as bad, if not worse.

So if all exams are the same, how can you have competition? It boils down to other areas; customer support, teacher training, learner resources and so on. The quest for each board to better the others here, with a finite budget, is what can lead to a stretching of resources and consequent problems the like of which we’ve already seen.

The elimination of competition should therefore be a Good Thing. And so it is, but only in part – boards will still have to compete to be the only one offering each subject at GCSE level. My preference, discussed in a previous post, would be for one board covering all subjects across the country, a system which works well in other countries such as Australia.

Still, competition every few years to offer a subject is better than competition all the bloody time, with each board mercilessly trying to grab a bigger slice of the market. The worry is going to be the initial scramble for licences, particularly with players like Edexcel, which has the financial might of its parent company, multinational publisher Pearson, behind it.

In order to be fair, the process of settling who gets to offer which subject absolutely must be completely transparent and open to public scrutiny. Edexcel’s status as part of a profit-driven multinational gives them an unfair advantage over not-for-profit boards like OCR. And in other areas of the Coalition’s frenetic quest to outsource all things public, we’ve seen private companies like Pearson assert the mantra of “commercial confidentiality” to cover all manner of sins in their negotiations. If this isn’t to be another case of ‘lobbying’ (read ‘paying off the minister concerned with a promise of a juicy directorship on retirement’), the process must be entirely open to scrutiny and investigation.

OK, OK… but what about the exams?

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When I was sixteen, I did O Levels – which worked in just the way Mr Gove is so keen on. I wasn’t convinced of their validity even then. A massive, nerve-wracking exam taken after weeks of frantic revision really only assesses what you’ve reminded yourself of recently and can remember on the day. GCSEs, while far from perfect, were designed to combat this with a process of continual assessment throughout the course, introducing the element of coursework to counter the criticism that plenty of intelligent people aren’t actually that good at exams.

Traditionalists have always had a bit of a problem with coursework; and in some ways they have a point. Mainly done without supervision, it was particularly open to plagiarism, a problem that’s intensified with the rise of the internet. The worry now is that entire coursework essays can be cribbed from Wikipedia; or even that certain, ahem, unscrupulous online companies actually offer to do it for you – for a fee, of course.

A halfway decent teacher, though, should be able to spot if work he/she is marking is written by someone other than the pupil they’ve been teaching for the past couple of years. If, that is, they’re not completely frazzled by their workload. Because for teachers, the problem is that coursework effectively means they’re marking students’ exams themselves, and that’s a lot of work – especially in larger schools, where the marking must be moderated by a more senior teacher and sometimes revisited if it’s not up to scratch.

The problem of plagiarism, at least, was supposed to be addressed by the introduction, in these new GCSEs, of ‘Controlled Assessment’ – basically doing coursework under supervised classroom conditions. Being a major change, it caused a lot of disquiet in the teaching professions, but it could have been a change for the better. Sadly, we’ll never know, as it was condemned for replacement after just one year due to the combination of press furore and political ambition. It may have a chance to prove itself in the next couple of years, as the ‘English Baccalaureate’ isn’t due to start until 2015, but its fate is already sealed.

So, assessment will go back to one, externally marked , terminal exam for each subject. I’m sure teachers will be very happy at the reduction in their already massive workload that will result from removing internally assessed work. But as a former exam board employee, I can testify that there was already a huge problem recruiting examiners for the examined units that already exist. Remove internally assessed ‘coursework’, and whatever board/s is/ are left will need many many more examiners.

Given the difficulty recruiting enough for the current level of externally marked work, I can see this being a logistical nightmare. Possibly the reduced workload caused by removing internal assessment will alleviate pressure on teachers, but I’m far from sure it will spur them on to become external examiners. And so Gove’s much-loved final exams may find themselves with a significant paucity of people to mark them. If you try to get exams marked without a sufficient amount of examiners, that’s when standards really suffer.

More generally, I’m not so sure about Gove’s emphasis on memorizing facts, figures and dates. Rote learning is important, of course – you can’t build an argument without facts to construct it from. But I worry that he’d rather have schoolchildren reciting the list of English monarchs without ever thinking about history.

The crux of it is that, while GCSEs could certainly have done with some fundamental reform, Gove’s changes simply push the system back to what he presumably fondly remembers from the 1950s. Hearkening back to a non-existent ‘Golden Age’ is certainly no basis for a programme of education – it’s been tried already, and the world has moved on.

So what should be done?

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I think there’s a real need to have a proper debate about the fundamentals of assessment – what we’re trying to achieve/quantify and how – going down to the absolute basics rather than modifying existing systems or hearkening back nostalgically to earlier ones. We need to properly challenge received wisdom on this issue, and do it entirely separately of political ideology.

For a start, since it’s been mooted that all children should stay in education until the age of eighteen (keeping them off those pesky unemployment registers), do we need a terminal exam at sixteen at all? GCSEs, like O Levels before them, were meant to quantify achievement at the level when children might leave school and go to work. If they’re not doing that, is there any point having them? Other countries, whose children stay in full time education until eighteen, manage perfectly well with tests taken at that point.

Which then leads us on to the question of A Levels. Among other things, GCSEs are used as a measure of whether a student is apt enough to take an A Level in a particular subject. But students don’t take A Levels in every subject; if terminal tests are taken at eighteen, they would necessarily include subjects that might not otherwise have been taken. Not everyone does Maths or English at A Level, for instance, but if all testing happened at the age of eighteen, they would have to. So that would render A Levels redundant too.

Which then, logically, brings us to Higher Education. With A Levels gone, how will universities assess the ability of their applicants? There’s already a problem that universities have to judge on the basis of predicted grades rather than actual results, and for years the idea has been floated of issuing results earlier, to give a more concrete idea of prospective students’ abilities. In practice, it’s unworkable – marking periods are already crushingly short, and to issue results significantly earlier would mean taking the actual exams much earlier, leaving less time to teach the course.

But maybe we shouldn’t assess by testing at all. Maybe there should be some other process of continual assessment throughout children’s schooling, from primary school onwards. And while we’re about it, do we need schools to be divided into a primary and secondary model at all? Again, other countries do it differently, some with more grades of school, some with less.

Also, should tests (if we have them) be norm-referenced (based on percentages of each cohort getting certain grades) or criterion-referenced (based on how well you actually know the subject you’re being tested on)? And why have grades in their current form? It’s always seemed unfair that a difference of one mark can move students from that all-important C to the doom-laden D. Why not express results in percentages of marks gained, as some countries do?

These are all questions that need to be asked. And ideally they need to be asked by educational experts, and not politicians. Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg has pledged that, should Labour return to power in 2015 (which is looking increasingly likely), they won’t implement Gove’s proposed changes at all.

That might be good news for those who cleave to the current system (which may not be a good thing either), but it means that for several years the entire educational system will be in turmoil, exam boards frantically designing new qualifications and tendering for licences to deliver them, while the poor overworked teachers must yet again begin training to deliver a new style of course – for the second time in three years. As always, the first group of students to take the test will be terrified of that leap into the unknown. And all for naught, if Labour get in and Twigg keeps his word.

It’s the clearest illustration ever of why politicians should be kept out of education altogether. Apart from the fact that they tend to know nothing about the subject, the constant demand to imprint your political ideology onto the education system means that it changes every time the government does, often for the worse. Teachers never know whether they’ll need retraining every five years, while students end up with incompatible results from completely different qualifications, that offer little comparability to prospective employers.

So if we really want reform, and we want it for the better, let’s keep political ideology out of it altogether and leave it to the experts – teachers, academics, you know, people who actually do the educating. Because Gove’s time trip to 1956 doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement.

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