As I write, we have finally received the last of this summer’s public examination results, those for GCSE and IGCSE, after the publication of our AS, A level and Pre-U the previous week. We are fortunate in that we have never entered our students for early individual GCSE modules or engaged in large numbers of January re-sits at AS and A level.
I have been persuaded that, whatever the size of the national cohort, overall the distribution of ability among the population remains fairly constant year-on-year. However, all headteachers know that individual cohorts of students do vary from year-to-year, not only in ability but also in self-motivation and personal circumstances.
The government and media seem to imagine that if a school’s grades do not rise inexorably year-on-year then something must be going wrong with that school – this is not necessarily the case. Needless to say, much has been said and written explaining how any changes in this year’s results nationally are the outcome of government changes to the examination system.
This year’s GCSE results have been described as “volatile” – a strange adjective to use – the results per se are surely fixed (subject, of course to re-mark) once they have been issued. People seem to be unsure as to whether they are better than last year (which they are marginally, other than in English) because all the less well-prepared year 9 and 10 candidates have been taken out of the system or do students actually perform better under the pressure of final examinations and reduced coursework? Students will certainly have much more teaching and learning time if they are not taking endless re-sits of modules, nor spending inordinate amounts of time on “controlled assessments”.
Teachers and students have had a tremendous amount to cope with in terms of change in recent years and this will continue relentlessly until the proposed revisions to A level are complete for every subject by about 2017/18. As I have written before, how schools, colleges and employers are supposed to make any sense of such a staggered change is a mystery. Some subjects such as English, history and the sciences will have new A levels (with no attached AS) to be taught from September 2015, others such as religious studies, design technology and music will follow from 2016, while mathematics courses may be delayed until 2017.
Will students prefer to choose the A level subjects which are still modular with an AS worth 50 per cent of an A level? We won’t know until next spring when options are made and the effects on a school’s staffing provision could be quite dramatic.
Unfortunately, our whole examination system is now something of a political football – educators feel disempowered and have very little involvement in its form. Until very recently, politicians from the main parties had all declared that they would leave the reforms alone if they came to power in May 2015, as by that time schools and colleges would already be far into preparation and timetabling for the teaching of the new syllabuses.
However, Labour’s shadow minister has recently announced that he will put the A level reforms on hold if Labour gain power next May. Many of us would have loved the A level reforms to have been delayed, so that they did not clash with the introduction of the new GCSE and so that students taking old-style GCSE would not be faced with the steep climb to new-style A levels. But May 2015 is too late to stop a reform set to be in place in September 2015.
Do politicians ever really think about the students whose life chances may be affected by their decisions and the fact that each young person only gets one journey through the school system? Not to mention the enormous burdens being placed upon teachers who have to prepare so much new material all at once? Mr Gove may be gone – but it looks as though his reforms are here to stay.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.