The secretary of state has spoken. The school examination system is to be reformed. Views are being sought, but the main structures have been established. Already, several overarching major issues have come to mind.
First, what about the effect on the overall education of our pupils? Too often, the law of unintended consequences takes over and, as examinations almost inevitably distort the whole curriculum, most of what is learned and taught in schools may be changed, not necessarily for the better.
Second, should we be developing more 16-plus examinations when the school leaving age is being raised to 18? Also, if these changes are not due to begin to be implemented until after the next election, will they really happen at all? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could actually have the support of all political parties for any reform?
I am sure that when modularisation of GCSE was first suggested there was no intention to create the kind of conveyor belt system of bite-sized learning, focusing on the test, dealing with one topic at a time and “parking” that part of the course in year 9 if the magic C boundary had been crossed. But, if the very future of your school depends on the percentage of pupils achieving at least a C, then such a consequence is not entirely surprising.
In this country we, or perhaps the government, are fundamentally conflicted as to whether school examinations exist to allow pupils to show what they know, understand and can do, or to demonstrate whether or not a school is “failing”. Although these two things are not mutually exclusive, they are not well served by the same blunt instrument.
If the new system gives primacy to English, maths, science, history, geography and a modern language, then most pupils will receive a diet almost exclusively of these subjects and teaching will, inevitably, become tailored to the new-style tests.
Schools and pupils will be judged by performance in the EBacc. Yet, there was never any consultation before the EBacc itself, with its prescribed subjects, was introduced and it is unclear as to why these should have such primacy.
Since then much lobbying and protest has come from those who believe that music, drama, art, religious studies, business studies, ICT and other subjects should have a place in the EBacc, but it has all been in vain.
There will be no separate papers for different tiers or levels of ability in these new examinations. All papers will contain a mixture of questions of different complexity and the most able will tackle them all, while the less able will only answer those which they are able to. Sadly, as anyone who has much experience knows, the less able may make a beeline for a very difficult question, spend a lot of time on it and fail to gain any marks; meanwhile, they are not answering the questions which have been designed for them.
I have also heard that the new examinations will involve three-hour written papers. We will need a very different kind of culture if we are to expect pupils to sit and write for three hours without a break. I thoroughly approve of the move to a single exam board in each subject, although I worry that minority subjects may not find a sponsor.
I would be thrilled if the assessment process was fair and unbiased and know that teachers’ lives will be improved if controlled assessment and coursework are abolished in most subjects other than practical ones. However, it has become obvious in recent years that not all public examiners are competent, reliable or knowledgeable about the subject that they are marking. Where are we to find all the high quality examiners needed for this new system?
The government might argue that these are the reasons for the long period before any change begins – so let us hope that this period is used to address some of these issues.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.