GCSE early entry – doing the right thing

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We are navigating our exams system through the rear view mirror with schools unable to plan ahead and students’ learning being constantly disrupted. Russell Hobby calls on heads to take a courageous stand.

What does it say about the monitoring and control of our examination system, when we are repeatedly forced to make significant changes to the grading, marking or administration of exams in the middle of students’ courses of study? 

It suggests that we are designing and launching courses and exams without sufficient knowledge of their impact or how their interaction with other elements of the education system will affect them. 

Worse than this, some of the more recent swerves, such as those to early entry, are to correct previous decisions, such as the downgrading of speaking and listening. 

We are navigating our exam system through the rear view mirror and that is not good enough. Can we not plan ahead or model impact before we set students and schools off on a particular path?

Disruption is not trivial. We need a stable teaching environment, with everyone calmly and confidently focused on study and preparation for these vital exams. 

Authorities and regulators should take the impact of this into account. This is part of fairness: we risk sacrificing the interests of one cohort in order to adjust things for a future cohort.

These decisions, and particularly the recent one on early entry, have caused immense anger and some degree of panic.

With an opportunity to reflect, I believe that it is best if schools do not react too hastily to this latest change, that they continue with the plans in place, which were in fact designed with the best interests of pupils in mind.

Early entry can have a vital role to play in preparing students for exams and balancing resources to give the students the best chance in life.

This will require true courage but the professional associations should fight the corner of any head who wants to make this stand. I also ask all local authorities and employers to make clear to their secondary schools that they will back them as they navigate the recent changes in the best interests of their students.

In effect, we are asking people to do the right thing in a system which too often rewards the wrong thing. The divergence between the interests of the child and the interests of the school is of deep concern. 

What does it say about the structure of the education system when it is a significant risk to do the right thing; where you face the closure of your school and the end of all your plans unless you dance to the latest tune?

Rather than constant course changes, the solution lies in the relationship between assessment and accountability. We have a lot of skilled and imaginative thought going into assessment design; we have centres of expertise that are respected around the world. 

None of it can flourish, however, when sensible choices about assessment are prevented by the pressures of the accountability system. We are forced to design exams with more of an eye to how they can be gamed than how they can accurately assess the skills and knowledge that truly matter in life.

Perhaps there is some hope on the horizon here. We await the results of the current consultation on secondary accountability. It may well be that we will finally invent a measurement system that equally values the progress of every student. As the recent controversy shows, there are other enduring problems, but this would be a good start.

  • Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk


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