GCSE fallout: fears over the negative impact of exam reform


A range of concerns have been raised about reforms to GCSE examinations and content – especially about the potential impact on less academic students and those with special needs.

A range of concerns have been raised about reforms to GCSE examinations and content – especially about the potential impact on less academic students and those with special needs.

The proposed changes will see an end to almost all coursework, higher pass marks and terminal examinations.

The plans, outlined last week by education secretary Michael Gove, stipulate what pupils should learn in nine core subjects.

In English, this includes the study of at least one Shakespeare play and a return to the teaching of more traditional areas of maths such as geometry and algebra.

The proposals were outlined as Ofqual, the exams watchdog, launched a 12-week consultation into the future structure of GCSEs, including the removal of tiered examinations in many subjects such as English language, English literature and geography.

In line with demands from the government, Ofqual has also set out plans to remove coursework or controlled assessment from all subjects with the exception of practicals in science. It states that “where subject content can be validly assessed by written exams, such exams set and marked by exam boards should be the default method of assessment”.

The consultation covers English, maths, the sciences, history and geography, but Ofqual has said that many of the principles outlined in the document, such as the coursework changes, will also be applied when proposed reforms to the remaining GCSEs are published.

Chief executive Glenys Stacey said she wanted to see “qualifications that are more stretching for the most able students, using assessments that really test knowledge, understanding and skills essential to the subject, and that are designed so that outcomes are well regarded”.

However, teachers’ leaders expressed their dismay this week about the proposed structure of the new examinations and their fears about the impact on the less able and pupils with special needs. 

They are also worried that the changes are being brought in with too little time and consultation. The Department for Education’s consultation over content changes runs until August 20, while Ofqual’s consultation on exam structure runs until September 3.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Creating one untiered examination for all students, from those with learning difficulties to potential Oxbridge candidates, is an immense challenge with no guarantee of success.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “A terminal exam is not necessarily the right way to examine all subjects in all circumstances. There is a balance to be struck between on-going assessment and final exams.” 

There are particular concerns about the impact on disadvantaged and SEN children. Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said current year 7 pupils would be “Mr Gove’s guinea pigs”. 

She continued: “We have serious concerns that the new style GCSE will not give all children the chance to demonstrate what they have learned and will particularly disadvantage children with difficult home lives. End of course exams on a single day test recall and memory rather than the range of skills that young people need in the 21st century.”

The British Dyslexia Association said that exams taken at the end of a two-year course “will not only be exceedingly difficult for many dyslexic candidates, but it could also create a barrier for them to continue on to higher education”.

A statement from the charity added: “Coursework is generally a much fairer method of assessment for those with specific learning difficulties whose difficulties can be exacerbated in the stress of a one-off examination. 

“We believe alternative methods of assessment constitute a reasonable adjustment for these students.”

Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, added: “Young people who move home or school will be at greater disadvantage, such as looked after children, young people in custody, young people accessing health treatment, and those living in short-term accommodation.”

GCSEs – what is being proposed?

  • The changes cover nine core GCSE subjects – English language and literature, maths, chemistry, biology, physics, combined science, history and geography. Grades will be numbered from 8 to 1 rather than the current grades A* to G.

  • Modular courses will be dropped and full, terminal exams will be taken in the summer at the end of two years of study.

  • Controlled assessment/coursework will be scrapped (except in science) with exams becoming more essay-based; pass marks will be raised.

  • English language, English literature, history and geography are to be untiered (of these currently only history is untiered). Tiering will remain for maths and the sciences.

  • The changes in the core subjects will be introduced for courses starting in September 2015, with exams sat in the summer 2017. Changes for other subjects, such as languages, will be introduced from September 2016 and announced soon.

  • In English, pupils will study at least one Shakespeare play, as well as Romantic poetry, a 19th century novel and poetry from the 1850s onwards. A fifth, rather than 12 per cent, of marks will be awarded for good spelling, grammar and punctuation.

  • In maths there will be greater emphasis on algebra, statistics, ratio, probability and geometry. 


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