GCSE and examination reform.

At a time when the future of GCSE is being widely discussed , the Rethinking Assessment movement is considering urgent and indeed fundamentally important questions about assessment and the even the Secretary of State who implemented it is arguing for change, here is an extract from my book written in 2017 . Footnotes and references have been removed.

There could not be a starker contrast between the implementation of that qualification (GCSE) and the reforms implemented from 2010.

First of all there was considerable buy in from the profession for the new qualification. The O Level was outmoded and largely inappropriate. Decades later those with experience of that qualification have not been listened to when policymakers rushed headlong into the ‘rigorous’ linear GCSEs first examined in 2017. If there was ever an example of lessons not being learned it is this. 

I was an O Level examiner and smile when I hear people harking back to those good old days. To pass the O Level in German one of the main things you had to do was to learn parrot fashion a large number of phrases or idioms which you could put into a 150 word composition about something exciting like a picnic in the country or a lost dog. 

Copying the lead of other experienced teachers and examiners who were mainly from the independent sector I culled a list of these phrases from scripts I had marked knowing that these all attracted marks and placed them all on a Banda sheet (remember those?) Each lesson we started with a test to see how many had been memorised. Let me give an example: ‘Trotz des schlechten Wetters’ means ‘in spite of the bad weather’. Since there was often a thunderstorm in the picture sequence for these stories this was a useful phrase to include. However I remember a chief examiner explaining to all of the markers that this showed that the student had not only mastered the fact that the preposition ‘trotz’ is followed by the genitive case but that (s)he had also mastered adjective endings and the fact that masculine and neuter nouns add an s in this case. This is of course rubbish. The students like mine had been given a Banda sheet of such phrases and learnt them off by heart. Gaming the system? Academic rigour? Many of the other phrases were highly amusing, most were not ones that would routinely have been heard in conversation in the last hundred years. I have had many fun conversations with my German friends sharing some of these archaic idioms.

The  other reason for buy in to GCSE was the O level / CSE separation. We desperately needed one examination, suitably tiered, which could be attempted by the majority of pupils and welcomed the fact that the specifications were very clearly defined building on the best practice from the graded objectives movement. Unlike O-level we knew exactly what we had to teach, what a grade meant in terms of learning outcomes and could therefore prepare pupils more effectively. Although Ofqual has disputed this[1] the examinations were largely criterion referenced. It was absolutely clear to teachers that, if a student demonstrated mastery of clearly defined elements they would achieve a given grade.    In my subject the examination gave equal weighting to all four skills enabling us to give the appropriate priority to the vitally important skills of listening and speaking as well as reading and writing.

To put it another way GCSE was not norm referenced as O Level had been. This meant of course that , there was no cap on the number of students achieving a grade leading to claims about grade inflation. These missed an important point. If grades were improving due to poor practice or overgenerous marking this was of course unacceptable and needed to be addressed. If however standards were genuinely improving then it would have been helpful for employers and higher education institutions to know. At present they do not.  And if genuine improvements had occurred a decision to reflect these improvements and raised expectations in future examinations would have been justified. What we were left with by 2017 was firstly that for every school that improved its results another had to go down and secondly that nobody can possibly understand what a particular grade means in terms of learning outcomes. The same student who was awarded a grade 3 one year might have been awarded a 4 or 5 if (s)he had been in another cohort.

Wisely, when implementing GCSE the government recognised the fact that teachers would need adequate time to acquaint themselves with these very different qualifications and planned for this. Unfortunately, the so called ‘Baker Days’  where schools closed for training were taken out of holidays to the anger of the profession. Nevertheless, having overcome that I was asked to host the session for all language teachers in Surrey. After presentations about the new qualifications we were given ample time to work in departments looking at each of the different specifications for our subject, the very high quality specimen papers and the detailed vocabulary and grammar listings. This enabled us to make an informed choice in good time to prepare our teaching programmes and purchase any relevant resources. It also brought subject teams from different schools together to share ideas and foster new and valuable links.

The new courses were a breath of fresh air and I and colleagues thoroughly enjoyed teaching them. That of course rubbed off on the students who made good progress and developed listening and reading comprehension and speaking skills that bore no comparison with those who had prepared for O Level.  Our A Level uptake increased substantially as a result. I would however emphasise that the majority of GCSE candidates do not study the subject to A Level. It is important that the tail does not wag the dog as it did with O Level. There is plenty of time in year 12 to make the transition.  

At this time there was also a tremendously useful organisation called the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) which operated under the auspices of the Department for Education and Science (as it was then called) and the National Foundation for Educational Research. This unit sampled the performance of 13 year olds in a range of subjects  and published really helpful, concise reports for teachers explaining the findings and offering useful guidance which were a powerful resource for departments to discuss. Because these were not accountability measures for the individual schools and were administered externally and therefore without any risk of teaching to the test they were incredibly useful.[2] Yet again a really worthwhile resource disappeared into the black hole of policy memory. 

The point about all of this is that there was a educational rather than an ideological rationale underpinning the changes and thought was given to their implementation. Not rocket science, just managing change effectively. 

I often contrast this with the 2010+ reforms. I don’t think anyone would have disagreed that GCSE was ready for a review. It had been in place for more than 20 years – a time of massive change in education and society and of a sea change in standards of attainment. When GCSE was introduced grade F was supposed to be the national average. That would be unthinkable now and quite rightly so. It had also also been right for an A* grade to be added to highlight top achievers. Of course it needed to be reviewed. Unfortunately, Michael Gove missed the opportunity to take the profession with him by involving them properly in the review of qualifications and the design of the new ones. Linear qualifications replaced coursework, not for any educational reason but because of an unwillingness to seek a way forward with appropriate safeguards to enable the profession to be trusted.

Lessons learned about examinations:

There are therefore some very serious points here:

The first is that our obsession with examinations for 16 year olds in this country is actually a barrier to real learning. Inevitably students are taught to pass the exam. Some commentators use the ‘gaming’ rhetoric to blame teachers for this. The reality is that teachers are hardly likely not to do everything they can for high stakes examinations upon which both their and their students’ futures depend.

The second is that examinations only sample knowledge and understanding. As the stakes have risen they have dominated the curriculum.

The third is that all of this discourse is actually a distraction from the fact that there are things that need to be learned off by heart and there is nothing wrong with that.  Some advocates of ‘powerful knowledge’ assume that they have invented this.

Fourthly the primary purpose of examinations should be to test students’ knowledge and understanding of the course. If the primary purpose becomes to hold institutions to account the focus shifts from the individual learner to the institution. When the Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman criticised the fact that too much time was spent preparing young people for tests she was on one level correct[1]. Sadly though she missed the point by directing the blame to schools.  If she is serious about changing this she will need to convince policy makers to step back and find better ways of holding schools to account. I will return to this later. 

There are big questions about the rationale behind the 2016 reforms. Fundamental questions should have been asked about the purpose of GCSE in the context of the fact that even before the raising of the participation age most young people were continuing in some kind of education or training beyond 16. 

Lessons learned for policymakers:

  • Qualification reforms cannot be rushed.
  • There is an urgent need for a fundamental rethink of the relative positions of formative and diagnostic assessment as an integral part of the learning process, summative assessment to measure students’ attainment and progress at the end of a course or key stage and assessment for accountability purposes including evaluation of the effectiveness of education policies. 
  • For any reform to be successful you have to get buy in from those who are tasked with implementing it.
  • It is teachers and school leaders who will make any reform work.
  • Teachers and school leaders want to do the best for their young people. As the reformed qualifications have been implemented they have felt deeply disempowered for the reasons I have described. I know from countless conversations that this is one of the major causes of disaffection and barriers to retention within the profession.
  • Assessment is a professional matter. Policymakers have been too closely involved in the detail in recent years.
  • The rationale behind any reform needs to be based on evidence and meticulous research.
  • We need to learn and heed the lessons of the past.
  • Any reform needs to be underpinned with a carefully researched impact assessment which considers all of the potential unexpected outcomes. Matthew Syed’s idea of a pre-mortem[1] is a powerful model.
  • Secretaries of State and their Ministers are not professional educators. They should focus on governance and strategic leadership of the education system. 
  • Policies that cap numbers of grades that are achievable directly undermine policies that promote social mobility. 
  • The disconnect between the comparable outcomes methodology that seeks to maintain similar proportions of each grade between years and the allocation of specific learning outcomes to a grade explains why the issue of re-marks has been so controversial. This needs to be addressed in order to rebuild confidence in the marking process.  
  • There needs to be a radical rethink about the systems in place for marking examinations. 


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