EBacc, babies and bathwater


Dr Hilary Emery fears that the GCSE reforms could see the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

In my mind’s eye I see several babies and gallons of bathwater cascading from the Department for Education as Michael Gove’s exam reforms emerge.

There are valid concerns about the way GCSEs are operating, but annual stories about falling standards, that anything except a final examination is a cop out, and that modular exams are an easy ride are ill-informed and damaging.

A problem with GCSEs is the way they are used to judge schools. We have seen a significant rise in the number of hurdles students have to clear for their achievements to count towards performance targets. From five “good” GCSEs, to five including English and maths, to the five Mr Gove deems most important. The EBacc has led to re-engagement with languages, but at the expense of those subjects which fall outside this hallowed ground. Furthermore, vocational qualifications no longer count towards GCSE targets, giving the message that these are of no value.

In parallel, the number of students required to clear these hurdles to ensure a school does not fall below the floor target has risen to 40 per cent, while the penalties for missing that target have become more directive.

Combine these pressures with the cost of exams when budgets are reducing and we have a toxic mix. It’s little wonder that the system has become subject to all kinds of distortions and pressures as schools try to maximise their results, and exam boards their sales.

If we only measure a narrow range of subjects and final exam results, many of our young people will believe we are neither interested in their learning and achievement nor value them and what they can offer. We risk suggesting that to achieve success, they must fit the system strait-jacket. We risk losing models of assessment that enable all children, including those with special needs, disabilities, family disruption and health issues, to demonstrate their achievement and attainment.

So what should Mr Gove do to resolve the mess the GCSE system has become and the loss of public confidence he has helped fuel? First, he shouldn’t throw out one system and establish a completely different one by 2015. Why not? Because for a new system to be valid and reliable, rolled out nationally, understood by teachers, and have the confidence of users, it needs investment in development. That needs time and money so that when it is launched we can be confident that it is fair and credible.

We need Mr Gove to tackle the serious weaknesses in the current system because we have students who will take GCSEs in 2013 and 2014. They need to have confidence in those GCSEs, not see them as discredited.

Mr Gove should set up an independent and rapid inquiry into the GCSE system including consideration of the impact of competition between boards, performance tables and the cost of exams to schools. Ofqual also needs to review exam board practice and require them to work with examiners and schools to address the identified weaknesses and flaws.

Short-term, we must fix what’s broken in the current GCSEs. Long-term, we need radical reform of examining, so it’s fit for an education and training system that will require participation up to 18.

We need government to work with universities, employers, parents, teachers and students to re-establish our exam system as being world class. We also need to tackle the damage that is done by the very high-stakes approach we are currently operating.

Great assessment recognises what has been learnt, poor assessment limits learning and inhibits teaching. We must move away from the latter to value all our children and all their achievements.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk


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