Slow down, you move too fast, Select Committee tells Gove

Janet Downs's picture
The cross-party Education Select Committee welcomed the Government’s desire to reform examinations because GCSEs and the way they are run required improvement. But the Committee had serious concerns about much of the reform programme.

The Government is doing too much, too fast, the Committee said. It expressed serious concern about the tight timetable leading to the implementation of the proposed exams. The pace of change may “jeopardise the quality of the qualifications” and “threaten the stability of the wider examination system, including A Levels,” the Committee warned.

The Committee said the revised secondary national curriculum and the Government’s proposals for accountability reform should be published first. It noted that Ofqual had urged Secretary of State, Michael Gove, to “state as clearly as possible the curriculum and educational outcomes required” in order to make sure the proposed qualifications actually met the Government’s requirements. The CBI, the Committee found, had urged a “whole system” approach.

The Consultation, Reforming Key Stage 4 Qualifications, was criticised because it didn’t state what was the “most important purpose of assessment at 16”. The Committee cited the CBI and Lord Baker, former Conservative education secretary.  Both had said the Government should not be concentrating on exams at 16 now the participation age was being raised.

The present accountability system resulted in “perverse incentives”, the Committee had found earlier. It recommended that the proposed new accountability system needed to be published as soon as possible if the new qualifications were to avoid similar perverse incentives.

The Committee was not convinced that the GCSE brand was discredited and said the Government needed to show that GCSEs were so damaged that they required abolition. It also took issue with Michael Gove’s assertion that linear examinations particularly helped disadvantaged students. The Committee cited Ofqual research which had found insufficient evidence to support Gove’s claim.

It was concerned about the impact of EBCs on subjects outside the EBacc core which would continue to be examined for some time by exams which had been devalued. The Committee questioned how it was possible to “upgrade” some subjects without implying that other subjects are downgraded.

The Committee found no evidence to suggest the proposed exams would be more successful than GCSEs in countering under-achievement or narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged pupils. And the Committee failed to see how “raising the bar will automatically result in more young people achieving higher standards”. It wondered how the proposals would actually help the young people who currently don’t achieve 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. The proposed “Statement of Achievement” for low attainers could prove less useful than a low grade GCSE (or equivalent). “It must not be allowed to become a badge of failure,” said the Committee.

The MPs agreed that changes were needed in the way in which exams are run but they had serious concerns about franchising subjects to exam boards. It wanted the Government to show that it had considered the likely unintended consequences of franchising.

The Committee noted the wide-ranging opposition to many of the Government’s proposals. It warned that:

"changes of this magnitude are best achieved with as wide support as possible from across the education system, the wider economy, young people and their parents and, not least, the political spectrum."

We will have to wait and see whether the DfE heeds the Select Committee’s recommendations. However, if past experience is anything to go by, the DfE will likely ignore its concerns and steam on regardless of the icebergs visible to almost everyone else.

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