Exam reform: GCSE changes confirmed and new A level plans unveiled


Wide-ranging changes to GCSEs have been confirmed this week, including a move to a numeric grading system. Meanwhile, two consultations have been launched detailing proposed changes to the design, assessment and content of A levels.

GCSEs: All change from 2015 as Ofqual confirms reforms

New-look GCSEs will move to a new grading scale using the numbers 1 to 9 instead of the A* to G system, Ofqual has announced.

The exams watchdog has also confirmed that GCSEs will have all assessment at the end of the course and that examinations will become the “default method of assessment”, meaning an end to coursework in many subjects.

Specific details have been unveiled this week of changes to GCSEs in English literature, English language and maths, which are to be introduced in England for first teaching from September 2015.

The Department for Education has also confirmed revised content for these subjects following its own consultation.

In a Parliamentary statement, education secretary Michael Gove said that the new maths curriculum will “demand deeper and broader mathematical understanding”, adding that he expects schools will “want to increase the time spent teaching mathematics”. 

Changes to a further six GCSEs – physics, biology, chemistry, combined sciences, history, geography – are to be introduced for first teaching in 2016 and will be announced in due course. However, Ofqual has already said that many of the general principles on which English and maths are changing will be applied to other GCSEs.

As such, it has confirmed that new GCSEs will include a grading scale using 1 to 9, with 9 being the top level. Proposals for how Ofqual will set a national standard under the new system will be unveiled in December.

Elsewhere, a fully linear structure will be introduced, with all assessment at the end of the course rather than in modules. And while the government has pushed for exams to be untiered, Ofqual has said that whether exams are tiered or not will be decided on a subject-by-subject basis.

When it comes to coursework, Ofqual has confirmed that exams will be the “default method of assessment, except where they cannot provide valid assessment of the skills required”. This will be decided on a subject-by-subject basis, although Ofqual has previously said that coursework or controlled assessment will only remain within science GCSEs.

Ofqual has also said that exams will take place only in the summer, with the exception of English language and maths, where there will be exams in November for students aged 16 or over. The watchdog is considering whether November exams should be available in other subjects for students of this age.

Specifically relating to the three subjects changing in 2015, Ofqual has said that English language GCSE is to be untiered and fully assessed by external exam, with 20 per cent of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar. English literature will be untiered and assessed by external exam with five per cent of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Maths will be assessed by external exam as it is now and will be tiered (foundation tier covering grades 1 to 5 and higher tier covering grades 4 to 9).

Chief regulator Glenys Stacey said: “For many people, the move away from traditional grades, A, B,C and so on, may be hard to understand. But it is important. The new qualifications will be significantly different and we need to signal this clearly. It will be fairer to all students that users of the qualification will be able to see immediately whether they did the new or a previous version of the GCSE. The new scale will also allow better discrimination between the higher performing students.”

Ofqual has said it will consult in 2014 on the structure and assessment of new GCSEs in subjects outside the nine mentioned above, including modern languages.

GCSEs: Reaction

Malcolm Trobe, Association of School and College Leaders: “As the new exams will be very different, the move to a numerical grading scale will help to avoid confusion. It is good to see that the new grading system will only be introduced when a subject syllabus is changed. 

“Although the approach is measured, the timescale for implementation is tight. This is a significant amount of change for schools and students. We need awarding bodies to produce syllabuses in sufficient time for teachers and students to be fully prepared. And we hope they will now draw a line under further change while the new GCSEs have time to become established and recognised.”

Christine Blower, National Union of Teachers: “Although the changes – and in particular the new 1 to 9 grading system – are intended to represent a new standard, this will simply be confusing for learners, the public and employers. In addition, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of having a single three-hour exam at the end of a course is built on a faulty premise that by definition all other approaches represent lower standards. We do not accept this. Tiering, re-sit opportunities, modules and coursework all have their role to play in getting the very best out of all learners.”


Consultation sets out reform plans across 14 A levels

Two consultations have been launched detailing proposed changes to the design, assessment and content of A levels.

Proposals from exams regulator Ofqual will see a move to 80 or 100 per cent assessment by examination in a number of subjects. 

Most notably, the proposals for biology, chemistry and physics see the assessment of practical skills no longer counting towards exam marks. In geography, however, Ofqual proposes the re-introduction of fieldwork assessments, which it says will make up 20 per cent of the final grade.

The consultation also sets out details of the new AS level, which is to become a standalone qualification, delinked from A levels – a move opposed by a number of universities.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education (DfE) has launched a parallel consultation over revised content for A levels.

The consultations cover a total of 14 subjects, which are all being revised for first teaching in 2015: biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, English language, English literature, English language and literature, history, geography, art and design, business, computer science, economics, and sociology.

Proposed changes to A level mathematics, further mathematics and languages are to be unveiled in due course with these qualifications being revised for first teaching in September 2016.

In line with its position on new-look GCSEs, Ofqual says that where A level subject content can be “validly assessed by written exams, set and marked by exam boards, this should be the default method of assessment”.

The proposals include moving English literature, English language, history, geography and computer science to 80 per cent exam and 20 per cent non-exam assessment.

For biology, chemistry and physics, assessment will be 100 per cent by examination, and while practical skills will be assessed, the results will be reported separately and will not count towards grades. Ofqual adds, however, that an understanding of experimental methods will be assessed in exams. 

The consultation states: “We propose that the development of conceptual and theoretical understanding of experimental methods should be assessed in the written exams.”

Elsewhere, Ofqual says that geography fieldwork skills, which are currently assessed by examination only, are “hard to demonstrate in a written exam”. It states: “Given the significance of the skills for progression to higher education, and the nature of the skills required, we are proposing that fieldwork skills should be assessed in a non-exam assessment at A level.”

This position is at odds with Ofqual’s proposals for the GCSE, where it wants to see fieldwork assessment contained only within examinations.

The exams watchdog has previously confirmed that all assessments will take place at the end of the two-year course for A levels.

The consultation also includes proposals for Ofqual to work with exam boards to “strengthen the moderation of teacher marking and reduce incidents of centre and student malpractice around non-exam assessments”.

The DfE’s consultation comes after education secretary Michael Gove said he wanted universities to have more influence on A level content so that they better prepare students for higher education.

He asked Professor Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, to review subject content for A levels and the DfE content proposals set out this week are a summary of changes suggested by awarding organisations as a result of his recommendations.

Many of them seek to engage A level students in “deeper learning”, ensure they are prepared for higher education, and that the “qualifications meet the needs of universities”.


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