Exams – a political football


With so many changes to examinations underway, it is clear that education remains a political football. Marion Gibbs fears that it is the students and their teachers who may well be the losers.

We have just held our “Meet the Governors Evening” for parents. We hold this every 18 months and all parents are invited to come and meet our governors and to ask them questions.

One of the questions this time was about the many imminent changes in the school curriculum and examination system. How were we preparing for this? This question is not just of interest to parents, but has been a major topic of conversation at almost every gathering, informal or formal, of teachers at which I have been present recently.

From September 2015, we are to teach new GCSE and AS and A level syllabuses in some subjects. Details of some of these courses have now been published, but some remain sketchy. We also have a General Election scheduled for May 7, 2015 – if Labour wins, then they assert that not all the proposed changes will happen. 

In most schools and colleges, presentations are made to pupils, prospective pupils and parents about choices of 6th form courses during the autumn term. What will we be saying this autumn? For the past few years, we have explained that there was no need to decide which subject choices would be taken just to AS and which would be continued to full A level as the courses were common in the first year. We have also reminded our 6th-formers to take AS examinations seriously, as every mark helps towards the final grade and high scores are valuable for university applications.

All this will now change, that is, unless a Labour government is elected. In future, as it is now planned, AS will not count towards A level and may not even cover the same topics. Some schools may offer no subjects at AS, others may decide that their pupils can sit AS in all their subjects in year 12 and then decide on what to focus. However, the latter is less likely, as exam fees will be high and if syllabuses are different then the transition from AS to A level will be tricky.

Teachers will face preparing new course materials and topics at GCSE, AS and A level – all at the same time. If past experience is anything to judge by, then there will be few exemplar materials or specimen questions available to allow teachers and candidates to understand the new examinations. Ofqual has explained to me how transition arrangements will be in place to ensure continuity of grading standards, but pupils and staff will be anxious about the “unknown”.

Politicians are often in a hurry to achieve things. The logical thing would be to introduce the new, allegedly more rigorous, GCSEs with their different modes of assessment and new topics, and then to follow on, at least two years later, with the new AS and A level. Although the same pupil cohort would have to experience new examinations at both stages, there would be a common style to these and one would build from the other. 

As it is, those pupils who have experienced the old-style GCSE will have to make the jump to the more rigorous and differently assessed A level, and teachers will face a possible overload of new material and methodologies to master. If this were to be cancelled after next May’s election, would we immediately revert to the current syllabuses and examination structures? Would that lead to different pupil choices and the need to re-write school timetables at short notice?

For decades now educationalists have expressed a desire for politics to be kept out of education – especially in terms of the curriculum and examinations. Unfortunately, education remains a political football and our pupils and teachers may well be the losers.

In my last column, I mused upon the complexities of examination grading. (A simpler grading solution, SecEd 381, May 8, 2014). I referred to the current Ofqual consultation about grading. Within a short time of publication I was contacted by a very senior Ofqual person. I must apologise if my article was misleading. Read the consultation in detail and you will see that Ofqual is not promoting norm-referencing. It is presented as an option, but they favour a hybrid system where grade descriptors and criteria are used in association with comparison of statistics from previous years. Do look at the consultation and respond.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.



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