DfE Consultation on 16+ Examinations

The DfE’s formal consultation paper is now available. Frankly, it’s not much more sophisticated that the leaks to the Mail. The evidence base is fragile to say the least and it rests almost entirely on a particular ideological fixation of ministers. The big issue though is not whether it’s a two tier sysm. It’s what it will do to the curriculum and the school experience of very many young people. Amongst the issues are:

1.  There has been no consultation on the central elements of the proposals nor will there be. The consultation now being undertaken is only about the details of the implementation of the government’s plans. There has been no attempt to seek the views of education professionals, parents, employers, higher education or young people. The proposals simply represent the views of current ministers and those to whom ey choose to listen.

2.  There is no attempt to identify the aims of education for 14 to 16 year olds. Without knowing what you are trying to test, it is not possible to properly define what form assessment at 16 should take.

3.  The proposals take no account of the views of employers who consistently place emphasis on a broad range of skills and personal qualities. This view was summed up by Ken Baker who said that “It’s vital that schools and colleges provide education which develops practical skills and personal qualities as well as subject knowledge. This has to include opportunities to learn by doing.”

4.  It is assumed in the document that there should be a full scale suite of externally managed examinations at 16+. The implications of raising the participation age to 18+ are nowhere considered. Nor is the experience of other countries where the key testing age is 18.

5.  Although nowhere stated overtly, the assumption is that the English baccalaureate subjects will form the basis of the curriculum for all pupils. In effect this is the secondary National Curriculum and it will apply to all schools. This is nowhere justified, it is simply assumed to be the right thing to do. With the addition of other required elements such as physical education, RE and PSHE, there will be space in the week for at most two subjects outside the English baccalaureate. This will represent a dramatic narrowing of opportunity for very many pupils. The future of exams in other subjects is kicked firmly into the long grass and the adoption of the name EBCs clearly identifies other subjects as second division.

6.  The same is true of post 16 progression. Pupils are seen as having failed if they don’t go on to A level or at least successfully resit GCSEs. The many pupils who go on to Level 2 and often Level 3 vocational qualifications which include literacy and numeracy but not in the form of GCSE are completely ignored.

7.  There is a fundamental confusion in the document about what should be expected as the outcomes of the exam system. The initial view is that the exams are too easy and too many people are passing. But later the expectation is raised that that most pupils should be able to reach a level better than the current GCSE C.

8.  The document does not address the issue of how the critical “Grade C” borderline will be set in 2017. Will it be set so as to achieve “comparable outcomes” (ie norm referenced) with 2016? If so, one is inclined to ask, what was all the fuss about? Or will it seek to set a higher challenge with the risk that fewer pupils achieve the level. If the latter, there would be serious issues about 2017 pupils who would have qualified for jobs, college or university courses in 2016 but won’t in 2017. This has the air of being an issue no one has really thought through.

9.  Although not as clear cut as the Secretary of State’s verbal comments, the expectation is clearly that end of course examinations will be the overwhelmingly predominant form of assessment. Comments about three hour exams and bringing back essays seem to be part of the spin and don’t figure in the document. However relying on this form of assessment is never justified in terms of the skills and knowledge being taught and examined. There is clearly no interest is assessing extended research, practical skills or speaking and listening. It’s perhaps worth noting that the much praised International Baccalaureate contains many of these features and does not have external exams at 16.

10.  Similarly, it is proposed to disallow examination aids such as calculators and periodic tables. This is “to allow students the best opportunities to demonstrate their true abilities and competence”. What this actually means, beyond requiring a kind of rote learning that no one would need in the real world, is quite unclear. What is clear is that the kind of system being proposed bears very little relationship to how people actually work today.

11.  The document claims that the vast majority of students will be entered for EBCs. The proposed formal arrangements for those who are not apply only to a very small number – there is not on paper at least a two tier issue. But what this will mean is a very different kind of curriculum for many pupils – a return to formal academic subjects rather than the practical, creative and vocational learning which has been shown to be much more motivating for many.

  • There are a number of issues left unresolved. The approach seems to be “it’ll be all right on the night”. These include:
  • The effect selecting one board to examine each subject will have on the viability of examining boards and therefore on other qualifications
  • The issue of norm or criterion referencing is not discussed. So the issues of how standards will be maintained over time and how judgements will be made about whether performance has actually improved remain entirely unclear;
  •  The objective is to get rid of tiered papers. However there is no discussion about how this might be achieved and whether it is practical.

12.  Without necessarily taking a view on whether or not there has been “dumbing down”, it is reasonable to say that exams are no longer adequately differentiating between pupils. This is one of their core functions and so some revision to the grading structure is reasonable. It would then be sensible to have a clear break so that qualifications gained before and after the break in continuity can be identified.

13.  It is proposed that teaching in English, maths and the sciences begins in Sept 2015 and in humanities and languages in Sept 2016. Following an election in May 2015, it would therefore be entirely practical to suspend the 2016 changes (although probably not the 2015 ones) pending a proper view of the purposes and methodology of assessing at 16.



One Comment on “DfE Consultation on 16+ Examinations”

  1. Paul Martin says:

    Under the last government, I used to work on preventing young people becoming NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). We succeeded really well with the 16-18 year olds, primarily by making sure they got good GCSEs and could progress either to FE college or school sixth form. I can’t see how anything Gove has done supports that – or an alternative. And there are precious few jobs suited to sixteen year-olds in this economy.