As the first results from the new GCSEs are about to be published it seemed timely to publish this extract from my book Lessons Learned? – A Life in Education
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 thisthe 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.