Parliament’s Education Select Committee has delivered a stark warning to education secretary Michael Gove, raising concerns over several aspects of his GCSE examination reforms.
A report from the cross-party committee argues that plans to introduce several key changes on such a tight timetable will “jeopardise the quality of the reforms and may threaten the stability of the wider exam system”.
The MPs say that Mr Gove has “not proved the case” that GCSEs in the key academic subjects should be abolished and replaced with new English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) qualifications.
They are also concerned at “wide-ranging” opposition to the reforms within the education sector and have reminded Mr Gove that he should have “as wide support as possible” for such significant reforms.
Opponents to the EBC plans welcomed the MPs’ report this week, with teachers’ leader Dr Mary Bousted labelling it “a devastating critique”. Meanwhile, headteachers called on Mr Gove to respect the “expertise and knowledge” of the profession and listen to their concerns.
Mr Gove wants to roll-out new EBCs in the core subjects in 2015 with first exams in 2017. Courses in other subjects within the English Baccalaureate – history, geography and languages – will follow.
The new EBCs will feature one end-of-course exam and will see one exam board delivering each subject. Mr Gove has invited exam boards to offer “wholly new qualifications”.
However, the MPs are worried about the impact of EBCs on non-EBacc GCSEs and also questioned how well the reforms will serve lower attaining and disadvantaged pupils.
The report states: “We have concerns about the potential impact of the EBCs on subjects outside the English Baccalaureate, which will be left with ‘discredited’ GCSEs for some time to come.
“We question the extent to which it is possible to ‘upgrade’ some subjects, without implicitly ‘downgrading’ others.”
It calls on Mr Gove to make a “concerted effort” to restore confidence in those GCSEs outside the EBacc and also warns that the Department for Education (DfE) must be prepared to “revise policies” if evidence emerges that because of the reforms young people are missing out on the “technical and creative skills needed for further learning and work in key areas”.
It adds: “The government should be open and explicit in acknowledging and explaining the consequences for these subjects.”
Mr Gove has said that the current system of tiered GCSEs “caps aspiration” and fails lower-attaining students. He wants all EBC students to take the same examination.
Also proposed is a “Statement of Achievement” for those students who are not entered for EBCs and possibly for those achieving low EBC grades. The statement would set out their strengths and weaknesses in each subject.
However, the MPs raised “serious concerns” about whether this would really serve lower attaining pupils well. The report states: “We have not seen any evidence that leads us to believe that the proposed changes will be more successful than GCSEs in addressing underachievement or in helping to narrow the attainment gap.” They also fear that the Statement of Achievement could become a “badge of failure”.
The committee does agree that GCSEs need “significant improvements”, but said the government “still needs to make the case that the GCSE brand is so discredited that it is beyond repair”.
It concludes that many of the problems identified with GCSEs can be linked to “perverse incentives” within the system, such as league tables and competition between exam boards.
The report adds: “We have not received evidence that GCSEs are so discredited that a new qualification is required. Legitimate criticisms can be made of GCSEs, and should be addressed, but the government must publish in full the results of its consultation and its analysis to justify its case that the brand is so damaged that it is beyond remedy.”
The report comes after exams watchdog Ofqual has already warned Mr Gove that plans to move to one exam board per subject poses “significant risks to the safe and continued delivery of all qualifications”.
A letter to the DfE from chief executive Glenys Stacey said the plans could “lead to unintended consequences, for example, unduly costly qualifications and too limited a choice of providers in future”.
The MPs echoed these concerns, stating: “We are concerned about the long-term impact and serious downsides of franchising subject areas to single exam boards. The government needs to show that it has paid sufficient attention to the likely unintended consequences of a franchised system.”
The report also attacks the government’s decision to abolish some GCSEs before the national curriculum review has been published. Committee chairman Graham Stuart added: “No sensible reform of assessment can take place without clarity as to what is to be taught. Changes to assessment and accountability should only be implemented as part of a coherent review of key stage 4 education.”
Ultimately, the report concludes that the government is doing “too much, too fast” and risks endangering the quality of the new system, the new qualifications and also the continued safe delivery of GCSEs.
It states: “We believe that the repeated calls to slow down the pace of change from a range of education and assessment professionals, including the chief regulator, constitute a ‘red light’ which warrants serious attention by ministers.”
Teaching leaders were cynical this week about whether the DfE and Mr Gove will heed the report.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said Mr Gove will “undoubtedly plough on with arrogant disregard for the impact on the lives of young people”. She added: “Reforms are bludgeoned through at breakneck speed with no concern about the consequences and on the basis of prejudice, rather than on any evidence.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “This is a devastating critique of the government’s policy. Michael Gove will lack any credibility if his response is ‘I know best; carry on’.
“The Parliamentary committee now joins a long list of those who publicly oppose the plans. Does Mr Gove really think he knows better than the teaching profession, expert academics, the Confederation of British Industry, a plethora of prominent figures from the cultural and sporting worlds, the qualifications regulator, and – according to a poll last year – a majority of England’s adults?”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “We hope that the secretary of state will listen to those of us with expertise and knowledge in this area, to ensure that the reforms stand the test of time and that qualifications are fair and consistent as well as robust.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have been clear that the secondary education system is in desperate need of a thorough overhaul – an objective with which the committee agrees. That is why we are making major changes to ensure we have world-class exams that raise standards.”
However, Mr Stuart added: “We have serious concerns about the government’s proposed timetable. Ministers want to introduce a new qualification, require a step-change in standards, and alter the way exams are administered, all at the same time. We believe this is trying to do too much, too quickly and we call on the government to balance the pace of reform with the need to get it right.” Further informationThe report – From GCSEs to EBCs: The government’s proposals for reform – is online at www.parliament.uk/education-committee