Public exams should be more than a political football

I had my own personal klaxon alert this morning. Hoping to gently ease myself into the Bank Holiday weekend, I thought how better to start my day than a browse through Twitter. A mistake. The BBC Twitter feed caught my eye. It carried a piece which could easily fall under the radar of news worthiness.

The shadow Labour schools minister, Kevin Brennan, had written to Glenys Stacey, chief exams regulator at Ofqual, about Gove’s proposed reforms to ‘A’ Levels: “I understand that the secretary of state’s position on this constitutes a policy direction to you, but in undertaking your work we think that it is important to signal clearly what our position will be following the next general election.” Essentially Mr Brennan is sending a warning shot across the bow of Ofqual that Gove’s mission to decouple ‘AS’ Levels from the two year linear ‘A’ Level qualification could be reversed after the election in 2015. (BBC article here)

I have very mixed feelings about this. On a point of principle I think I agree with the thrust of Mr Brennan’s argument – that the move would “narrow students ‘ A’ level choices, remove a key indicator for assessing university applicants and undermine progress in widening access to higher education.” However, there is another dimension to this debate which we dismiss at our peril. The stability and integrity of the qualifications’ framework.

We had an insight into the shape of things to come last year when a cohort of students were believed to have been let down by the system. The exam boards AQA and Edexcel felt the full force of a backlash against the perceived injustice in the grading of GCSE English. Allegations about political interference motivated by a determination to end grade inflation were noisily refuted by the DfE and Ofqual. However unfortunately damage had been done to the integrity of the examination system.

The extent of the damage is revealed in the results of a poll just published by Ofqual. In its efforts to assess how far confidence in the GCSE qualification had been affected by last year’s debacle, Ofqual carried out a poll of head teachers, teachers, parents and other interested parties. Salutary reading for all concerned, the results show clearly that GCSE has suffered a blow to its credibility. Some 89% of the heads and 77% of the teachers had concerns about the exams. These included unfair grade boundaries, incorrect grades and inaccurate marking.

Given the reforming agenda of the current Secretary of State for Education this poll is music to his ears. His department’s response says it all. A spokesman said Gove had warned that GCSEs suffered from serious weaknesses. “This report shows that these concerns are widespread. The changes we are making will restore confidence in GCSEs … they will be more rigorous, with deeper subject content and match the best equivalent exams in the world.”

Setting aside the view of teachers that Gove has been somehow complicit in exacerbating the problem, the fact remains that our examination framework demands more from us than political posturing. So although I sympathise with Mr Brennan’s desire to counter another strand of the Goveian Revolution at ‘A’ Level, I am deeply concerned that this will create instability in a qualifications’ system which is already creaking under the weight of the change proposed by the DfE. And halting change when planning is already well advanced is just as destabilising as the change itself.

Given the importance of ‘A’ Levels in accessing Higher Education, the possible fall out from getting this wrong is incalculable. GCSE-gate, a cautionary tale, should be warning enough. Politicians must remember that qualifications have a currency beyond the length of a parliament. They are about people’s lives – their hopes, dreams, aspirations. They are therefore too important to become a political football.

3 thoughts on “Public exams should be more than a political football

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