It all seemed so straightforward at the beginning. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, announced early in his term of office a root and branch reform of the qualifications’ framework all in the name of driving up standards. As the timeline for reforms moves ever closer to implementation I can’t help but be bemused by the process.
The currency of examinations rests on stability and understanding. Yet the cohort currently in Years 9 and 10 are at the epicentre of changes which mean their qualifications will fall between the two systems in the sixth form. They essentially have a mixture of old and new ‘A’ Levels, modular and linear, where grades will not have the same meaning. And who knows the status of ‘AS’ Level which remains shrouded in uncertainty. Similarly the new style GCSEs will be introduced in a staggered way so students currently in Years 7 and 8 will also have a mixed economy of qualifications. The most striking change signalled thus far is the decision to abolish a tiered structure in English Language and Literature which means we now have the extraordinary situation where literally one size must fit all. This humble paper will offer nine grades of assessment. Just think about that – what a challenge for the awarding bodies.
Yet really we are witnessing more than just the implementation of a process. The ethos behind the new qualifications’ framework is different from the system it replaces. And this is a real issue. There are few people who would defend the current system, however, it seems perverse to change the assessment for a generation of children who are in the middle of their education premised on a different trajectory. Surely in a rational world which places the child at the heart of their learning, the curriculum should have been reviewed from Early Years upwards with assessment objectives based on the desired learning outcomes. Instead we have a desired outcome based on the primacy of high stakes testing which challenges the declarative memory but not much more.
For me, this goes to the nub of the matter. We are about to experience the most significant changes to our examination system in a generation but changes which are regressive and missing the opportunity to embed within the qualifications’ framework aspects of learning which are not tested in this traditional way. It is often said that we value what we can measure. The new examinations value only one dimension of learning. Contrast this with the long established, highly regarded International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Intellectually rigorous and challenging, the programme values a broad range of knowledge and skills with an assessment framework designed to promote the importance of independent study, group work and presentational skills as well as the capacity to sit a high stakes examination. Given the IBDP is a qualification of choice across the world, I am not alone in valuing it.
I also feel discomforted by the reforms because beyond missing an opportunity it is quite possible they will lead to unintended consequences not anticipated by the government. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that universities, which will have to manage applications from students with mixed qualifications, will decide to by-pass the medley of grades and numbers. The temptation must be for recruiting universities to extend their current bespoke testing regime. Once this process begins it is likely to become embedded and so, even when the transitionary cohorts have gone through, a legacy of Gove’s reforms will be an additional higher bar in place for applicants in the future. Given the government’s desire to widen participation, this potential consequence would only further widen the gap between students in schools which can help prepare them for university testing and those which cannot.
I know that every school will do its best to ensure pupils are prepared for these examinations. But when you unpack Gove’s sound bite about driving up standards the implications are profound for the educational opportunities of our young people.