The DFE consultation on KS4 reform - deeply flawed but we must respond

Fiona Millar's picture
The DFE consultation on KS4 reform - abolition of the GCSE and what will replace it - is a slight document . Nineteen pages to be precise, on what will undoubtedly be a major upheaval to our secondary schools.

It is important that people think about what this document is proposing and respond, not only by answering the very limited questions it asks but by debating publicly those that it doesn't.

The opening paragraph of the document claims that the proposed changes will restore rigour and confidence to the examination system at 16 " which has been “undermined by years of continued grade inflation".

Scant evidence is provided to justify these claims. The consultation notes evidence of grade inflation in some subjects, but by no means all. There is the usual vague reference to the 'international comparisons” – presumably this is the PISA data that the Secretary of State has recently had his knuckles rapped for misusing - and a nod to a YouGov opinion poll saying people believe exams have got easier, which is not really surprising since we are told this on almost a daily basis by politicians and newspapers that should know better.

Overall the evidence is not compelling enough to damn genuine school improvement  and as my colleague Henry Stewart points out here grade inflation may be more myth than reality. Moreover If there is a problem with some GCSEs – that could be dealt with directly without the reforms that are proposed.

But be warned; this is an intensely political, and partial, document and it is hard not to avoid the conclusion that Michael Gove got his fingers burned with his botched leaking of the O level/ CSE story in the summer, so he is just going about getting the same result in a different way.

And there are several problems with the new key proposal for a set of exams in core academic subjects  - English, mathematics, sciences, history, geography and languages. Each will be known as an English Baccalaureate Certificate. Achieving all five will mean the student is awarded something known as the full English Baccalaureate

The first is that even though their stated aim is to restore confidence by ending the perverse incentives created by the current system, the new qualifications will simply set up another set of perverse incentives.

The accountability framework that will accompany them hasn’t been settled, even though one would have thought the two were inextricably linked. But paragraph 1.4 of the consultation states: “We intend to use the school and post-16 accountability frameworks to incentivise schools and colleges to teach these new qualification both at KS4 and post-16”. So it seems clear where we are headed.

The EBC may well end the perverse incentive schools have to use less exacting GCSE equivalent qualifications in preference to GCSEs in more traditional subjects. But in return it is bound to lead to insufficient alternative pathways and a whittling away of creative subjects like the visual and performing arts and some technology subjects, subjects that are not just part of a rounded and rich education, but vital to the British economy.

There is NO mention of vocational education in the consultation, nor any mention of art, drama , music, IT or DT. As a number of prominent figures in the arts have noted this is likely to leave these subjects as the preserve of the independent sector.

Then there is the time scale and the change of name. Schools are to start teaching these new English Baccalaureate Certificates in English mathematics and sciences from 2015. The first exams will be taken in 2017 and the government floor targets recalibrated accordingly. There is no mention of piloting the new qualifications.

It could be chaos but perhaps equally worrying is that the way the new qualification will be introduced and branded means that pupils taking the last remaining GCSEs in the intervening years are effectively being told they are studying for a second-class qualification. The consultation makes it clear that there must be no confusion between a grade awarded in respect of GCSEs and one awarded on the basis of EBCs

" We do not believe it would be fair on students if we continued to use the title GCSE to describe the new qualifications, 'reads the consultation. "With different expectations, and different grading, it would be unfair not to distinguish clearly between the results achieved by students in 2016, the last year of the current GCSE, and in 2017, the first year of the new qualifications"

So eat your heart out current Year 8s, you now have to spend three and a half years working for a set of exams that your government believes are worthless while your peers in Year 7 can hold their heads up high because they will get the more highly valued EBCs - a "clean break with the past and recognised as an academic foundation which provides secure base on which to build further study"

Or rather they will be able to hold their heads up if they are able to take this new qualification that will be un-tiered, free of re-sits, coursework, teacher assessment and only awarded after single externally marked terminal exams.

And that is a big IF, which should ring  alarm bells. Apparently lower attaining students (no real indication of how many that category may be) who are unable to manage this type of assessment will get no qualification at all but a “letter of achievement”, a sort of consolation pat on the back.

The current lower tier GCSE papers are condemned for ‘limiting progression routes’ but in their place will come something which offers no progression route at all with clear shades of the old grammar /secondary modern divide.. No wonder parents and teachers in the SEN sector are fuming.

The fourth problem with this proposal is that it isn’t actually a baccalaureate, at least in the sense that most people understand that concept from the high status International Baccalaureate

You can read the IB learner profile here but the key phrase for me is the following:

"The IB programmes promote the education of the whole person, emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth through all domains of knowledge. By focusing on the dynamic combination of knowledge skills, independent critical and creative thought and international mindedness, the IB espouses the principle of educating the whole person for a life of active, responsible citizen ship."

In short a bit more that five three hour exams....

The DFE is also proposing an end to competition between exam boards when it comes to provision of qualifications in the five core academic domains English, mathematics, sciences, history, geography and languages.

They are right to point out that the marketisation of the exam system has brought with it another set of perverse incentives as the awarding bodies inevitably have a conflict between the integrity of their qualifications  and the commercial need to make their qualifications more attractive to schools than those of their competitors.

But if competition, marketisation and commercialisation of the exam system is so distasteful, why should we have to tolerate it in the rest of the public services, where competition and for profit institutions are now being heavily promoted as the answer to under performance?

Finally there are the questions that aren’t asked. The consultation doesn’t delve into how the fine detail of these qualifications will work and how they will be graded. As I pointed out here, the fiasco over the GCSE results this summer illuminated just how this process works now and will do over the next few years.

A rough estimate of what any year group should achieve based on their KS2 SATS results is made, and if they exceed it, the numbers have to be brought back into line, making it very hard for pupils to actually exceed the target that has been set for them. Or rather some pupils can, but only if others don’t, making a nonsense of the Ofsted framework and aspirations for schools to demonstrate that their pupils can make exceptional progress.

Is there in fact to be a fixed number of pupils permitted to achieve certain grades or a fixed standard beyond which all children are potentially be allowed to go? We don’t know, but that seems to be quite an important subject.

Nor does it ask what I would have thought it the most important question of all: “Do we actually need qualifications at 16 if all young people are to stay on in education and training until 18?

Should we be moving towards a system with one final qualification at 18 which measures not only academic achievement but also credits a wider range of skills than simply the ability to rote learn and pass exams, alongside an accountability system that values the creative arts, practical skills, personal development and citizenship and allows education to become a more stimulating, liberating process than this narrow little document envisages.

Some head teachers, like this group the HeadsRoundtable that I wrote about in the Guardian three weeks ago, are already thinking more radically and have drawn up their own consultation to mirror the DFE’s. It is here and I urge anyone who cares about the future of our schools to read it and respond.

But also respond to the DFE consultation if only to point out the flaws in their plans. This is a moment when parents, teachers, heads and governors can push back. There is even the potential for schools to just say no. They could either continue to teach a broad range of subjects and to give young people the chance to pick and choose the qualifications that suited them.

Or they could go one step further. There is no legal requirement on schools to enter pupils for GCSEs, but most, whether academies or maintained schools, do so because of the accountability system. What would happen if some schools started to teach the real Middle Years Baccalaureate and did no exams at 16? The league tables would quickly start to become meaningless.

We do need to hold schools to account, ensure rigour, high quality teaching and tell parents how their children are progressing. But there are many more exciting innovative ways of doing this than the DFE consultation allows. This document asks the wrong questions and provides the wrong solutions.

Could people power force a re-think?


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Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 12/11/2012 - 20:43

This is particularly terrifying. And it makes me very angry too, having a child in Year 8! Or maybe I should be relieved because there's no guarantee that these new qualifications will have credibility, or will be particularly "teachable", or be any more rigorous than previous GCSEs. The problem with terminal exams is that they lend to "teaching to the test" whatever they are -- and narrow, reductive learning takes place. Patricia Broadfoot's An Introduction to Assessment is particularly good on this...

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 13/11/2012 - 19:50

I disagree - we are forced to teach to the test now because the sheer frequency of modular exams leaves little time for anything else. Terminal exams are a breath of fresh air.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 12/11/2012 - 22:58

Where have we got to with the new primary curriculum?

Have we got past the stage where the maths curriculum looks like it's was produced by a weak but overconfident first term PGCE student yet?

Wasn't that going to be completed in a few months?

I went to on of the consultations on its implementation a few months ago where the only coherent comment was 'How can we possibly comment on the implementation of a draft curriculum which is a very long way from being any where near fit for purpose?'

But then no consultation or program of implementation is needed these days is it - because ministers can write precisely what they feel like into the Ofsted criteria and put schools into special measures if the don't do it. Most regulators deeply understand the importance of the independence of the regulator from government.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/11/2012 - 15:28

A storm is gathering about education. And it's not just the usual suspects - you know, the people Gove dismisses as "Trots", "enemies of promise" and so. There's the newly-formed Headteachers Roundtable - heads of all types of state schools including academies who've banded together. There's the upcoming judicial review about the GCSE fiasco - a recent TES survey found that 9 in 10 secondary schools blamed Gove for the debacle.

Even embattled Ofqual is concerned that Gove's proposals for exams may be a tad rushed.

Yesterday, Louise Robinson, president of the Girls' School Association, told the Independent she thinks the Government is "moving too far, too fast" on reforms and schools should pilot them first. The Independent wrote that Ms Robinson's remarks showed a "significant rift is developing between Mr Gove and independent schools over his reforms."

And when parents of pupils now in Years 8 to 11 in English schools realise that Mr Gove and his supporters have so damaged GCSE that the exam their children will take has little credibility, and when parents of Year 7 and primary school pupils realise that their children will be taking untried and untested exams which are out-of-step with the rest of the developed world, then millions of parents are going to be angry, very angry indeed.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 13/11/2012 - 16:56

I've been chatting to parents of children in years 9 and 10 today who are really demoralised by the challenge of motivating their children to prepare for exams the government is saying are discredited. They are very angry and they do seem to blame Michael Gove.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 05:31

As if there were never children in yr 9 & 10 who couldn't be bothered to revise for exams!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 07:52

Leonard - you're in danger of judging all pupils by the standards of the worst. Of course, there are pupils in years 9 and 10 (and 11 and earlier) who can't be bothered to prepare for their exams - it was ever thus. But that doesn't mean that the fears of parents (even of those who know their children are unmotivated already) can be dismissed.

This Government and its supporters have discredited GCSEs - so the next four cohorts will be taking exams that are now regarded as worthless. But the situation will not be improved by Gove's flawed EBCs - backward-looking and out-of-touch.

Exams at 16 should be scrapped and replaced with graduation by multiple routes at 18.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 07:53

Indeed. But most parents don't know that.

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