Thursday, 13 June 2013

GCSE reforms: a brief overview

The education secretary, Michael Gove, recently unveiled further details of the changes he wishes to make to GCSE exams. This is the latest development in a string of proposals, some of which have since been dropped (such as last year’s English Baccalaureate Certificates). With the growing list of proposed changes and abandoned ideas, it’s beginning to get a little hard to keep track of what the situation is. With that in mind, we thought it would be helpful to summarise where things currently stand.

Changes to the current system have been proposed under the argument that things need to change. Many of those who support the reforming of GCSEs have cited last year’s English grading controversy as evidence that what we have doesn’t work. There are also other problems, such as grade inflation coupled with an ever more competitive jobs market threatening to erode the value of GCSEs as a qualification, and the perception that (due to the changing economy) GCSEs may not be preparing pupils effectively for further education, training or work. Supporters argue that reform is therefore necessary to restore public confidence and safeguard the future of our young people.

Opponents to the proposed changes have raised doubts about the nature of the changes and their potential knock-on effects. While some agree that things may need to change, all are concerned about how Gove is trying to actually go about that change. Those closest to the front line, such as teachers, believe the feedback they are giving is not being sufficiently taken into consideration. They worry that Gove’s focus on one set of final exams encourages “teaching to the test” at the expense of fostering a love of learning, or ensuring pupils gain valuable skills that will continue to be useful to them in education, work and life.

Many opponents believe that coursework, which would be dropped under Gove’s proposals, can provide opportunities for young people to learn how to effectively manage their time, conduct research and analysis, prioritise tasks, and work to a deadline over a period of weeks or months instead of the few hours they’d get in an exam. The argument has also been made that modular exams and coursework provide more opportunities to assess pupils’ progress, and so give a more accurate reflection of ability than relying on one set of exams at the end of two years. Some have also pointed out that this system would better prepare pupils who wish to go on to higher education for the methodology of university assessment.

Caught up in the middle of the storm are students (and their parents). For many, the back and forth discussions have left them with a troubling sense of uncertainty. Due to the fact that the changes are not being rolled out across all subjects at once, pupils due to start studying under the new system will be sitting two different types of GCSE at the same time, and will have two different types of grades listed on their CVs. To further complicate matters, Wales and Northern Ireland are taking different approaches but will keep the GCSE name, meaning there is the potential for confusion between GCSEs taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland already has its own separate system).

So if you are going to be affected by Gove’s changes, but you’ve been left disorientated by the uncertainty, here are the things you’ll want to know:

  • The proposed changes will affect England only.

  • The changes are planned to be in place for the start of the 2015 academic year.

  • Pupils beginning their GCSE studies in 2015 will sit the first of the new exams in the summer of 2017, at the end of two years of study.

  • These exams will be their sole method of assessment and all coursework will be dropped. The sole exception is Science, which will retain a practical element.

  • The 2015 changes will affect 9 core subjects: English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Combined Science, History, Geography.

  • By the start of the 2016 academic year, changes to other subjects, including Modern and Ancient Languages, will be introduced.

  • The grading system is changing from alphabetical (A* - G) to numerical (8 - 1). The designation of 8 as the top grade is to allow for the addition of higher numerical grades in the event of grade inflation (9, 10).

  • Resit opportunities will only be available during the same time as the summer final exams, except for English and Maths, which can be retaken in November. This means that many students will have to wait a full year before they can resit their exams.

  • The pass mark is set to be pushed up, and there will be a greater emphasis on essay-based questions.

  • The ‘tiered’ exam system for different ability levels will be removed except in two subjects: Maths and Science.

  • A number of subjects will place a greater emphasis on the UK (for example, Britain in History or British Literature in English).

  • English Literature exam questions will be designed to check that pupils have read the whole book. Course content must include at least one Shakespeare play, a selection of Romantic poetry, a selection of 1850-1980 poetry, at least one 19th century novel, and one work of British post-war fiction, poetry or drama. No more than two texts should be selected of each from prose, poetry and drama. Digital texts, such as web texts or blogs, will be excluded.

  • English Language will award 20% of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar (raised from 12%).

  • Maths will place an emphasis on the development of independent problem-solving. Pupils will required to apply their knowledge and reasoning to provide mathematical arguments. There will be fewer single-step questions and more non-routine problems, in order to avoid setting the types questions which can be rehearsed.

  • Geography will have a new emphasis on fieldwork skills, such as map reading.

  • Modern Languages (such as French and Spanish) will require that pupils develop an understanding of the culture and identity of the country where the assessed language is spoken. They will also be required to translate sentences or short texts from English into the assessed language. In addition, the changes will see the introduction of abridged or adapted literary texts, which can include poems, letters, short stories, extracts and excerpts from abridged and adapted essays, novels, or plays from contemporary and historical sources. Marks allocated for reading, writing, speaking and listening will be equalised, each making up 25% of a pupil’s final grade.

  • Ancient Languages (such as Latin) will require a greater focus on use of the language. New specifications will result in new assessment objectives: linguistic and cultural. Each counts for 50% of a pupil’s final grade. Pupils will be required to develop an understanding of classical literature, and explain how English words are derived from the assessed language.

These changes do not affect IGCSEs, which will remain as they are.

For those who want to know more or get involved with the discussion around GCSE changes, there are ongoing consultations which the public can respond to:

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