Too much focus on accountability and examinations

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Recapping five years of qualification reform, Dr Tina Isaacs says we are still focusing too heavily on accountability and examinations, rather than pupil progress and a broadly based curriculum

Since 2010, the government has reformed just about everything that could be changed in key stage 4 and post-16 qualifications. 

From a teacher’s point of view, no qualification remained untouched. GCSEs and A levels were given a new structure, content and assessment rules. The Diploma was quickly abandoned. The place of vocational qualifications in performance tables shrank. EBacc and Progress 8 accountability measures have been established. However, rather than revolutionary deep alterations to the system, these changes are more evolutionary, even if they seem daunting.

Our qualifications-based system is not based on what students should know and be able to do, but on how many examinations they can pass. And because our schools are accountable for students’ performance in examinations there has been less of an emphasis on ensuring that many students, especially lower achievers, are studying the broad range of subjects necessary for them to thrive in later life as citizens.

From the outset, the last government seemed to recognise that students needed to study a broader range of subjects. But the introduction of the EBacc did not go far enough – schools still hesitated to enter their lowest achievers because their performance would add little to grade A* to C accountability. If the system were curriculum-driven, then all students should take certain subjects up to the age of 16 or 18 (but not necessarily in the rigid structures we offer today).

The new performance measures will do more to encourage schools to enter their students for subjects that matter most. Alongside restricted re-sits and early entry GCSEs, Progress 8, in place in 2016, will measure pupils’ outcomes across eight subjects. Schools will be judged by students’ performance without the grade C cut-off weighing as heavily as in the past, and I am hopeful that more schools will be encouraged to offer a broadly based curriculum for all.

With the avowed aim of making GCSEs more rigorous, revised subject content has been introduced, coursework either abolished or downgraded, and the assessment made linear rather than modular. New English and mathematics GCSEs will have first teaching in 2015, other EBacc subjects follow in 2016.

This ends a very short-lived experiment with fully modular GCSEs that only started in 2009/10. It is unlikely that this revision will be lamented by many, and certainly not by me, since modularity increased the assessment burden and skewed entry patterns. I do regret the loss of coursework, because if done properly it can assess “the work of the course”.

Finally, a new grading system will be introduced to replace A* to G grades with grades 9 (highest) to 1 (lowest). Despite problems of getting the public ready for completely new grading, Ofqual believes the best way to signal higher expectations is to break grading links with past qualifications.

It is predicted that roughly the same numbers of students will get grade 7 and above as those who got grades A and A*. The additional grade 9, which 20 per cent of grade 7 and above students will be awarded, will represent a smaller proportion than those who got A*. And while the old grade C is the equivalent to the new grade 4, there is a policy push for grade 5 to be recognised as “passing” performance.

With all this noise, it is impossible to tell how the new system will play out. If only the best eight GCSEs matter, hopefully students will take fewer and in more established subjects, allowing for more teaching and learning time and reflecting a more challenging, and I hope interesting, curriculum. However, as long as accountability measures remain the main drivers, schools will continue to do all they can to maximise their performance table points. And who can blame them?

Mercifully, there are fewer fundamental changes at A level. In a stark reversal of Curriculum 2000, all A levels will be linear. While the AS will continue to exist, it will be decoupled from the A level. Students who take an AS and then want to study a full A level may find themselves being assessed twice on essentially the same content. The AS may wither on the vine, although schools will inevitably continue to offer some end of first year examinations.

Top universities rely on the AS results in making their offers and are very unhappy to see its demise, and so am I because of the potential loss of broader learning. If students are judged on the outcomes of three A levels for university entrance, will they bother to start out on four subjects as they do now?

To my mind, many of the GCSE and A level reforms are heading in the right direction, but they continue to rely far too heavily on accountability at the expense of feedback on progress, the main vehicle for deeply understanding what students have mastered and what they need to work further on.

There are currently 70 GCSE subjects on offer with their results being used for so many purposes their principle aims seem to be lost in the mists of time. While there is a strong value-for-money argument for using a single set of examination results for multiple purposes, it is widely accepted that the more purposes a single assessment aims to serve the more each purpose is compromised. A more revolutionary approach to reforming the 14 to 19 system focusing on the curriculum rather than constantly revising examinations and accountability measures might be a real way forward.

  • Dr Tina Isaacs is programme leader of the MA in Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education.


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