More on Gove and 16+ Exams

Trevor Fisher writes:

1.The proposed reform of 16 plus exams – in actual fact only GCSEs – is deeply flawed, and must be suspended to allow proper consultation. The DFE document avoids discussing the fundamentals of the  Gove statement of Monday 17th September, which is riddled with problems and would threaten what is still an internationally respected exam system. There must be an independent enquiry to replace this parliamentary stitch up.

2. Fundamentally (a) there has been no real consultation and unlike the A Level OFQUAL consultation now coming to an end, only a handful of parliamentarians have had a role (b) the assumptions behind the Gove statement are deeply flawed, especially on grade inflation where they mistake the problem and produce a wrong solution c) the statement fails to understand that there is one system, and the proposals for exam boards for GCSE if implemented could destabilise the AS – AL system. The boards do both. (d) the process of announcing proposals before parliamentary debate is arrogant and constitutionally questionable. The Welsh board appears independent and Gove could find that unless there is consensus and negotiation, the Welsh could reject his proposals and English schools could go to Wales unless stopped. There are also international consequences, GCSE and A Level are significant exports.

3. While comment has focussed on restoring confidence in England in GCSE and A Level standards, reform has to consider educational and social effects.. What is proposed, is a dangerous narrowing of provision post 2015, and a dogs dinner of a semi- school leaving certificate which may contain both EBac and GCSE or not. Reform is desirable as grade inflation is now accepted on all sides to have happened, and course work and other assessments can be abused under the current systems,. But a high stakes end of course exam which may discriminate against girls (who do better with course work) is not a good prospect.

4. Since the system is not scheduled to start till September 2015 with the first exams in summer 2017 but in only a limited number of core subjects, with GCSEs still running under an indeterminate sentence of death, the urgency of the September Diktat is unfathomable.  It is telling that a solution to problems considered urgent will not start to happen till September 2017. Four more years of a flawed system! What’s up Doc?

5. The danger is in the core and peripheral philosopy. Creating a certificate – possibly restricted to EBac subjects , and certainly favouring EBac subjects – means multiple modes of acceptability. Nick Clegg objected rightly to a two tier system back in June.  However, there will be a three tier system – those who get all EBac, some EBac, and no Ebac. Congratulations, Mr Clegg.

6. Gove’s  priorities seem less exam reform than controlling the curriculum.  In the context of League table presssure, the creation of core and peripheral subjects immediately creates a sheep and goats situation. Gove has a brass neck in complaining “critical to reform is ending an exam system that has narrowed the curriculum”. Ebac has already done so, as the NASUWT survey of May 2011 showed, and as EBac develops this will get worse. But the core subjects also suffer by being so high profile, and the TES argued recently that in English, maths and biology, applications for teacher training are down.

7. However the biggest problem is that the Select Committee and government, in trying to tackle grade inflation, hit on the wrong solution. Schools allegedly take easy exams to boost league table score leading to what Gove calls “a race to the bottom” (para 17). While League tables do lead to teaching to the test, exam boards offering easier exams to get custom is unproven, and should have been stopped by OFQUAL. The root cause of grade inflation was the shift from norm to criterion referencing, Keith Joseph’s reform. There are indications that OFQUAL has moved back to norm referencing to try to solve grade inflation, and if so, then the situation is untenable. In terms of the national challenge, schools statistically cannot improve pass rates if the percentage of passes is fixed.

8. Politicians have the wrong diagnosis, so the solution of one board per subject will not work, even if the Welsh board can be induced to play ball. Boards will compete for contracts.  At the heart of the proposal appears to be a belief that boards can compete for a five year contract and then after 5 years might get it back. Not so. Once they have sacked their examiners, even for boards with other business (eg EDEXCEL) the talent pool once gone will not be reassembled easily. And as the income of exam boards helps finance the smaller A Level entry, the loss of GCSE income could well destabilise A level provision at a time when A Levels are themselves up for change.

9. The impact of exam reform and league tables now threatens curriculum provision and to remove hard won exam expertise. The EBac is a core curriculum and in a high stakes league table culture will become the priority. Indeed, some argue it is the intention to go back to a narrow grammar school curriculum. Vocational subjects are marginalized as the JCB academy told the Select Committee. While Susan Elkin in the Independent of 19th September argued no performing arts teacher should “think their life’s work has been airbrushed out of existence” by not being a core subject, this is untrue. League tables mean that it is no longer true that “heads value the arts for the breadth they bring to children’s lives”. Heads are forced to compete to boost league table positions. If they do not get passes in the core subjects (EBac), their school suffers. Non-core subjects will thus be marginal and the staff who teach them lose their jobs. The curriculum will be narrowed.

10. Even this brief sketch shows why the proposals must be suspended and referred to an independent enquiry into school exams. This must consider both 16 plus and 18 plus exams and A level reform suspended so that progression can be assessed. The needs of the future must be assessed and full consultation take place. It is clear why parliamentary politicians wanted to preempt debate. The proposal of September 17th is putting out the fire with gasoline, and there must be a debate involving all stakeholders.