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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The new GCSEs: pitfalls and possibilities

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 November 2013

Tina Isaacs
Ofqual today announced the design details for new GCSEs in English and mathematics for first teaching in 2015. New GCSEs in other core subjects will first be taught in 2016, so will doubtless follow the same patterns. The fate of non-core GCSEs is currently up for grabs. To complement the announcement, the DfE separately confirmed the subject content.
Nothing in the announcement was particularly surprising – all of the ideas had been trailed by Ofqual and the DfE. Those involved in making the changes will be well aware of the potential pitfalls – some of which I outline below – but decided that the new system would be an improvement over the old, which has lately had losses in public confidence.
A new grading scale of 1 – 9. This is meant to avoid confusion between the old standards and the new, higher ones that current policy demands. Ignoring the challenge of explaining to end users (HE and employers, not to mention teachers and students) how the new grades compare to the old, the challenge of actually setting new standards must be causing some consternation both in Ofqual and in the awarding bodies. Mr Gove has stated that the new GCSEs must be made more demanding, especially at the equivalents of grades C and A/A*, but has left it to Ofqual to decide how to do so. Comparable outcomes, used currently to set standards, must be off the table, since the Government has expressly demanded that outcomes not be comparable. By raising standards will fewer students achieve the highest grades?
Tiering in mathematics but not in English.  The mathematics community will be happy with this one, although the method of tiering has not been announced, and capping issues may remain. It will be interesting, though, to see how the English community reacts. English is graded by the quality of outcomes rather than by more demanding content, although even here there are “get arounds”. For example are Hard Times or A Christmas Carol (both 19th century novels that the new subject criteria mandate) more demanding than Ulysses? The standards challenge in untiered subjects resides in changes to mark schemes and an adjustment of marker judgement; reliability – especially inter-marker reliability – will be a thorny issue here.   In untiered English both the reading lists and the wording of the questions set could be affected – will they be accessible to current foundation level students or will those students’ needs be ignored because of the need to increase difficulty?
A linear structure, with end of course assessment. This is doubtless a good thing, not because there aren’t subjects that lend themselves well to modular structures, such as mathematics and science, but because of the endless examining that modularisation can cause for students who may be taking 10 or 11 GCSEs (so some 40-odd assessments).
100% external assessment.  Again, the mathematics community will by and large be content, since this is in place now. For English it’s another story. Communication in English is one area where many believe internal assessment is necessary; the compromise position is that speaking and listening will be reported out separately and not affect grades. The impact is unpredictable but is likely to lower students’ overall achievement since most do very well on this element. Given how much coursework contributed to the English debacle of 2012 it is unsurprising that the Ofqual consultation recommended 100% external assessment. While that, coupled with linear assessment, resolves many of the summer of 2012’s problems, if there is no coursework demanding extended writing, an argument could be made that the construct of English is not being adequately assessed.
And now for something completely different.  In his blog of last week Professor John White suggested that we scrap GCSEs entirely, now that everyone needs to be either in education or training until age 18, and replace them with records of achievement. I’m quite sympathetic to his proposal – although slightly dubious of records of achievement, having lived through the burgundy binders last time around.  My alternative proposal, if we really need a progress measure at age 16, is to develop key stage 4 tests in English and mathematics (and perhaps science) as a complement to teacher assessment in those and all other subjects, reported out on a yearly basis (which is statutory anyway). This would give us a handle on how students are doing in key subjects, while freeing up a great deal of time, energy and money. It might even break the two-plus-two lock-step of GCSEs and A levels that holds back some students who might achieve a good standard at 17, but who struggle to do so at 16.  It could, of course, also have unintended consequences that would have to be deeply thought through, such as teaching to the test (which of course already happens now).  It might mean that some students get considerably more English and mathematics teaching, at the expense of other subjects, which some might consider a good thing.  And issues such as multiple purposes would have to be worked through.  The temptation would be to use the tests both for accountability and progression purposes, i.e. to judge school performance as well as to act as qualifying examinations for A level work, even if only the former were intended. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but believe that the question of whether this might be a change for the better is worth asking.