Reform will make exams system “on a par with the world’s best”. That’s the rhetoric, but what’s the reality?

Janet Downs's picture
Education Secretary, Michael Gove, says his planned GCSE reforms will ensure “the exams system is rigorous, respected and on a par with the world's best.” But is this true?

No other high-performing jurisdiction*, apart from little Singapore, has high-stakes tests at 16+. Those countries that use assessment at 16, usually to decide upper-secondary routes, restrict the tests to a small number of core subjects*. It’s unclear how making English secondary students sit 8, 10 or 12 high-stakes tests in a wide range of subjects at 16+ will be “on a par with the world’s best” when the “world’s best” don’t do this.

Are there other tests which show how English pupils perform in relation to other countries? Yes**, although only one, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), tests pupils who are nearly 16. The others**, PIRLS and TIMSS, test pupils at younger ages, 10 and 14. PISA tests reading, maths and science. Again, it’s difficult to understand why inflicting such a large number of exams on English sixteen-year-olds matches what is done in PISA.

UK pupils were average attainers in reading and maths in PISA 2009, and above-average in Science. So, has Gove got a point? The OECD found that there is a long tail of under-achievement in the UK and this is something that needs to be addressed. But will reforming the exam system mean that under-achievers would get better results? The Sutton Trust warned recently that it was unwise to jump to conclusions based on international league tables. Instead, the problem of England’s socially segregated education system needed to be tackled instead. And Gove’s first proposal, now discarded, was for low-achieving pupils to be left out of the exam system altogether. Instead, they would receive a consolation prize, a Statement of Achievement, instead. It’s hard to understand how this would have motivated low-achievers. Neither will they be spurred on to higher things now that a Grade C, not a Grade G, is regarded as a basic GCSE “pass”.

Despite his recognition that there are pupils who would struggle with his reformed exams, Gove still maintains that any child can get a Grade C as long as they receive a “good education”. But this ignores the fact that education isn’t just what happens in schools. Yes, teachers can make a difference but they are not miracle workers when faced with factors such as poverty, under-nourishment, poor parenting, neglect, abuse, poor language skills and lack of support from home. Gove recently blamed poor education for Jade Goody’s lack of knowledge – he completely ignored her chaotic upbringing in order to make a cheap shot at the education system.

So, will Gove’s proposed exam reforms make the English system “on a par with the world’s best”? No – because “the world’s best” do not place such a heavy burden on sixteen-year-olds. And No, because it diverts attention from the problem identified by the Sutton Trust - England’s socially-segregated education system.

*See faqs above: What are the examination and assessment systems in OECD countries? and What are the examination systems in other countries?

**See faq above: How are UK pupils measured against children in other countries?

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