Sophia Martelli

Exams: the great leap forward

GCSEs have already begun to change, and the A-level revolution comes next year. <em>Sophia Martelli</em> considers who benefits from the new rules – and who doesn’t

Exams: the great leap forward
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GCSEs have already begun to change, and the A-level revolution comes next year. Sophia Martelli considers who benefits from the new rules – and who doesn’t

A year from now, the new A-level curriculum will hit sixth-form classrooms; changes to GSCE have already been partly implemented. The exam reforms initiated by Michael Gove are hailed either as ‘much-needed’ or ‘carnage’ depending on who you talk to.

Although controversial, most teaching professionals agree that a good sort out of exams is overdue, including Paul Redhead, a former head teacher who now works with the Council for Independent Education. Public exams have been ‘systematically devalued since the 1980s’, according to Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former special adviser. Comparing the UK’s GCSE and A-level results with their equivalents in other countries reveals a 2–3 per cent grade inflation level per year — which over ten years adds up to a lot. The format of A-levels shifted somewhere between 2005 and 2010 to reflect the modular format of GCSEs (including the ability to resit modules until the desired mark can be recorded) — although there is no record of any official decisions to make A-levels modular by the Ministry of Education, Ofqual or the exam boards.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy for everyone to agree on how the exams should change. The new curriculums were developed after the Department for Education looked at the highest-performing countries on exam league tables — from Finland to Shanghai — and applied the best of what they were doing to the English curriculum. Tougher measures have also been included. Thus in GCSEs, maths will have more emphasis on problem solving instead of formulae, and in arts subjects there will be more essays instead of multiple choice. But teachers lined up to criticise Gove over the changes in content to the history curriculum (‘half-baked’) and the manner of implementing reforms (‘undemocratic’), and there will undoubtedly be more controversy when the reforms meet pupils: the mop-up on that awaits Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan. However, as Cummings remarks, ‘Even Tristram Hunt has agreed kids should be doing more maths and essays.’

What are the reform highlights? The major one is that exams will be linear, not modular. (‘We’re very pleased that modules have been discontinued — in GCSEs particularly,’ says Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), and former headmaster of Harrow.) Instead, students will be examined once a year, in June, which will lessen the burden of bureaucracy in schools, exam boards and government departments, and prevent resitting of modules — and the grade inflation that this practice led to.

The reduction of ‘non-exam-controlled work’ (in other words, coursework) means that core subjects including English, Maths and History will be graded purely on pupils’ output in exams. Many teachers view this as a good thing: coursework has become burdensome, with ‘dull, predictable tasks and coursework not always measuring what it’s supposed to be measuring,’ says Lenon. And let’s not forget, coursework also tends to measure the amount of support a student has at home.

Coursework will remain in some subjects (art, design and technology, drama, dance, PE); however, slightly more controversially, the practical exam module is being discontinued in the sciences. Even though data-logging and manipulative skills will be assessed by the teacher and a grade included separate to the exam results, the system is open to abuse — something that some teachers I spoke to are concerned about, as indeed is -Cummings. However, a significant number of the questions in the A-level exam (15 per cent) will be about the practicals the student must have completed. Thus, argues Lenon, ‘This does not represent a downgrading of science practicals — it might even represent an enhancement, since with some exam boards practicals are -limited.’

Another major change — an unpopular one with independent schools — is that AS-levels will ‘decouple’ from A-levels, and will no longer count towards 50 per cent of a pupil’s final A-level mark. It’s not just that AS marks are a useful basis for university admissions (Cambridge, in particular, values AS-levels for this reason); these exams also provide students with a progress check halfway through a course, giving them something to work for — and an inkling of which subjects, if any, to drop.

On the other hand, GCSE grades being more differentiated at the top end may help with university admissions. ‘There have been far too many students getting high marks at the end of their exams,’ says Lenon. ‘These are in exams which are not particularly stretching.’ Under the reforms, grades 1–9 replace A*–F, and it will be much harder to get a grade 9 than to get an A*, which will help the more selective universities identify the best candidates. Which raises the question, who are the best candidates? The unreformed exams favoured students who turned in plodding coursework on time — and with the ability to retake modules, the system didn’t exert much pressure on pupils. That will all change; the students likely to achieve the highest marks now are the ones who thrive under pressure and who can retain a large amount of information for a small amount of time — the ‘mavericks’, as Paul Redhead terms them. Much like the reformer himself.