A single exam board?


Marion Gibbs muses about a new examination system with papers set by one, single, not-for-profit awarding body.

Schools may be on holiday in August, but education certainly dominates the headlines in the second half of the month. It’s that time again, time for the press and broadcasters to feature examination results and floor targets and league tables and public debates about the reliability of grading.

For pupils finishing year 11 in 2014, there will be no more modular GCSEs, rather all pupils will have to sit final examinations in the summer of 2014.

The resulting lack of opportunities to re-sit modules or to take the examination in “bite-size” pieces may well lead to a lower proportion of grades A* to C. The secretary of state has also mentioned a return to O levels, but these were only ever designed for the top 20 per cent of an age cohort and at the moment all secondary schools are expected to ensure that 40 per cent of their pupils achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE.

This summer, for the first time, the overall proportions of pupils nationally achieving the higher grades at GCSE went down, while the floor targets for schools were increased from 35 to 40 per cent. 

This is before any of the major changes to the GCSE examination system have actually taken effect. Headteachers have protested and an inquiry was launched.

I have written on many previous occasions about the vagaries of public examination marking. 

This summer it was our history A level – one of the two A2 modules was marked by an “aberrant” examiner (as the Board described them).

When we asked for a priority remark, the students’ scripts gained between 42 and 56 additional marks each – a huge difference on a single module – and overall grades increased from C to A or B to A* and lost university places were reinstated. But what if we had not launched a priority remark? 

Not all schools and colleges have the resources available to respond like this, with a potential fee of more than £50 per candidate. We all spend huge sums on examination fees, but few are convinced that it is money well spent or well earned. 

The idea of a single examination board has been suggested. I think that this is an excellent idea. 

Yes, we would like options within subjects so that different periods of history or a variety of texts in literature were available, but why do we need rival examination boards to provide these?

The single examination board should be “not-for-profit” and should involve practising teachers at all levels and higher education input at A level. 

At the moment, with so much at stake for students and schools, it is all too tempting for many to opt for the apparently easiest examination board in any particular subject. Costs should be drastically reduced. The savings could then be spent on teaching and learning to enhance students’ education.

Now that the school leaving age is being raised to 18 years, it is also time to reconsider why students are being entered for GCSE examinations in so many subjects – in some cases it seems rather like stamp-collecting.

A new 6th form entrant from a local state school has taken 14 GCSE subjects – I am not sure why. Do we have to certificate everything a student does? Are the ideas of learning for pleasure and education for education’s sake now completely defunct? Should we return to the days of basic matriculation? 

Of course, we might also need to rethink how we assessed schools’ overall achievements and how we compared schools – but such a review seems long overdue.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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