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The Rigours of GCSE and the EBC

September 17, 2012

jim Sweetman @jimbo9848

We are living with a coalition which is dedicated to rigour. Things will only get better if we are rigorous about controlling immigration or about getting people off benefit and back to work and so it is no surprise that we have to be rigorous in education. This week it is the GCSE examination which needs a rigorous shake out.  We are told that it has become increasingly flabby with module choices, coursework options and opportunities to resit whenever you like all confusing the outcomes. Coincidentally, or some might say in a rather more contrived fashion, the same GCSE has been in trouble in the last few weeks both for having declining standards and grade creep and also for trying rather clumsily to avoid them so that makes this review even more opportune.

In the emerging debate, everyone is of course an expert because they once sat an examination. It is a bit of a generalisation but the people who were crammed best to pass those examinations now seem to be sitting in the places where they can pass judgement on them. In fact, there are lots of experts who don’t seem to have had school-age children for quite some, let alone to have been inside a school within the last umpteen years but we have to live with that. There is probably also a large silent majority who hated school, messed up their examinations, ruined their life chances and who don’t expect anything ever to be any different.

So, now we have a review which is intending to put an end to grade creep by making this examination more rigorous. That means it is a terminal examination taken in one lump. It will have more demanding questions and be marked more severely. The best candidates – fewer of them – will be allowed to rise to the surface and given gold stars. It will be nationally set by one examination board so that there is no race to the bottom in terms of matching papers to specifications. Everyone will be allowed to sit it and be rewarded according to their capabilities.

Well that certainly smacks of rigour but it might be worth thinking about why we got GCSE in the first place and why a Conservative government introduced it. One reason was to extend the range of certifications so that more people got them. Although almost everyone takes GCSE now, around 25% of pupils nationally leave education at 16 without any discernible educational qualification or bit of paper to take with them saying what they can do or what they know and understand. If you want to reduce the benefits bill and the number of NEETs (young people not in education or training and receiving benefit) it would be a good thing not to make this group any larger and taking away the GCSE foundation tier which gives them access to education might not be a good thing.

And, then, if we are going to have a common examination for everyone, let’s ask some of these politicians to write the questions bearing in mind that they also want to crank up the standards and the expectations, and they think extended writing is a good thing. Trying to set a question in any subject that has a clear answer, differentiates across the full range of ability, can be accurately marked reasonably quickly and shows no evidence of cultural bias is pretty difficult. Trying to set a lot of them each year is even more difficult. And then, trying to set similar ones year on year at the same standard is even more difficult again. Common assessments can work quite well but common examinations with restrictions of time and resources are very hard to do well.

We have a recent model for the kind of calamitous failures which can result in thirty years of national testing. After a huge investment, frequently changed design teams and models, expensive pretesting, examination papers and mark schemes written by huge committees and the rest, most of this edifice at key stages one, two and three has now fallen apart leaving a sort of clutter of debris behind it but surprisingly little useful statistical information or learning.

What else is wrong with single session terminal examinations – apart that is from candidate illness, teacher illness, the variations in class size and teacher understandings of what is required, hay fever in June, erratic or incompetent markers, uncomfortable hot weather conditions, periods, dyslexia, physical disabilities which affect how fast you can work, family crises and bereavement, poor handwriting and test overload? It is sometimes not so hard to understand why people might have thought that a component structure with different kinds of assessment, taken at different times of the year and marked by different people could ever be an improvement or add to the reliability of the system.

Improvement is of course a difficult concept. If people aren’t going to improve and schools aren’t going to improve people’s life chances by, dare one whisper it, raising standards then we might really ask what the whole educational endeavour is all about. In essence, one Daily Mail reader’s spluttering into his or her boiled egg about grade creep reduces to another young person doing better at school than his or her parents did and that is actually what all political parties want. It is complicated as well because schools are judged on how far they improve and raise their standards. If they are bog standard comprehensives we call this grade creep but that is a bit more difficult if they are our new prestigious academies which, as a coalition, we have funded.

We might also think about what we want GCSE or this new O Level to actually do for us. In a world of lifelong learning and training where people are going to have more than one job in more than one area of work it might be useful to have a matriculation standard which says you have got your basic common shared learning up a certain point where you can begin to – and where you are equipped to – specialise and choose alternative pathways. In other words, you have achieved the basic
knowledge, skills and understandings which are a precondition of future study. The trouble is that most advanced economies like to specialise in this way a little bit earlier than we do and probably at 14 years of age rather than 16 to 18 so they will still be ahead of us. Also, in thinking about it, we seem to have confused the idea of a matriculation standard with a gateway which shuts down the options for some and turns them away while letting others through. Instinctively, knowledge elites tend to work to protect themselves in this way.

The other thing about all this radical change for the future or a demented retreat to the past depending on your point of view is that it is quite unlikely to happen. The start date of 2015 is after the next election when there is a good chance that the Liberal Democrats will have changed sides and be espousing vocational qualifications, coursework and portfolio assessment. Then, we will end up with another two headed camel, bloated, not fit for purpose and managing, once again, not to serve the best interests of young people and learning.

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