The consequences of rigour

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Politicians demand tougher examinations, but will floor targets change to reflect this? Headteacher Marion Gibbs on the "rigour" debate.

“Rigour” certainly seems to be coming back into fashion.

When I was a schools inspector in the early 1990s we always tried to include the word rigour somewhere in all our reports, although in those distant days most inspection reports were never published.

Now we have a secretary of state demanding that young pupils master their times tables and five-year-olds learn simple poems by heart. 

Actually, in the independent sector, and doubtless in many state-maintained schools, such things have always been accomplished and teachers will be wondering what all the fuss is about.

For secondary school teachers and pupils there are other changes in store, aimed at making things more challenging and rigorous, and discriminating more precisely between those of differing abilities. 

GCSE examinations have been declared too easy in several subjects and the level of difficulty will be increased during the next few years. Modules are being phased out. Meanwhile the consultation about how to make A levels more rigorous has just opened.

The effects of these changes and proposed changes are numerous. Will employers or university selectors have a special checklist which they can consult, allowing them to equate, for example, a B grade in GCSE geography from 2014 with an A* in geography from 2010, or indeed a D grade in mathematics from 2015 with a B grade in mathematics from 2011?

Somehow, I doubt this. Few have ever appeared to take any notice of the different demands of the various examination boards offering the same subject when assessing people for higher education entry or employment. 

The A level scenario is more complex. Already the “selector” universities often demand a detailed account of all the A level modules ever taken by an applicant with dates and grades. 

New rules have also been introduced by some, stipulating that A levels only “count” if they were completed within a two-year span and finished at the end of year 13 – so much for stretching the most able by encouraging them to take AS modules in year 11.

This also penalises schools and students who took early modules in good faith, before these new “rules” were introduced. But that is so often the way in our education world, just think of the English Baccalaureate.

But what about the students themselves? How would you feel if someone suddenly told you that the examinations for which you had been preparing were too easy and were going to be made harder? 

In reality, many students in the independent sector have already faced just such a scenario, as schools have moved away from some of the current more trivial, hoop-jumping and controlled assessment-dominated GCSEs to take instead the more rigorous IGCSE.

This is just what we have been doing in our school. Some heads of departments have warned me not to expect as many A* grades as a consequence, but they are convinced that the courses are better, teaching the students valuable knowledge and skills and preparing them well for the next stage. I am awaiting the outcomes with interest.

Our teachers have been eager to adopt a more challenging syllabus in their subjects, but will this be the case in every school? 

If you are faced with a punitive regime and the percentage of A* to C grades achieved determines whether or not your school is “failing”, then the prospect of harder examinations with lower success rates is not an enticing one.

Perhaps we will find the “floor targets” lowered to reflect the greater difficulty – but somehow, I think that this is unlikely!

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


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