This was posted on behalf of Trevor Fisher who was unable to upload the article
The Gove GCSE exam reforms have largely flown under the radar. The potential for unravelling 14-19 education and the HE sector rests on the untested nature of the proposals, ignored partly because the name (GCSE) was kept and the Lib Dems were involved in the process of reform. Labour says nothing about GCSE reform in its education statement, apparently endorsing the view as the Lib Dems have that GCSE was dumbed down – under Labour. It’s not going to be an issue in the election, but will be as the reforms develop, the first (Maths and English) due to start this September (2015).
However there is a wider problem developing, flagged up by the report in the Sunday Times of 5th April which reported that the public schools – or some of them – are pulling ahead of state schools in the 16 plus league tables. Hidden in the article was a quote from a Grammar School head pointing out that the independent sector is increasingly taking the IGCSE – international GCSE – and this is widely regarded as easier than the GCSE. While this wider problem remains uncontested by Labour, it will be focussed by the danger of educational apartheid if the public schools reject Gove's reforms and continue to go down the IGCSE route – which the Coalition is trying to stop the sector from doing, in a bizarre rejection of one of Gove's few useful reforms.
By June there is a growing risk – which could hit the press – of a two tier system, private versus state, developing in the summer. As Richard Pring and others have pointed out, the independent schools are abandoning GCSE (they never took vocational equivalents, which seem to have been purged via the Wolf report anyway). Particularly in the Head Masters Conference, schools are moving to IGCSE (International GCSE). ConDems do not like this, and the existing IGCSE was banned from the performance tables for the 2014 exams. Colleagues may recall in January a minor scandal as schools like Westminster fell to the bottom of the League tables. They had ignored the ConDems and carried on with IGCSE. Thus they had no successes to report. Allegedly. However this minor scandal points to a much bigger one.
Teachers in the state sector are under increasing pressure to gamble with Gove. While the Reformed IGCSE ((R)IGCSE) is approved so can be funded, in January Schools Minister Nick Gibb decreed that the (R)IGCSE, though approved, will not be included in the Performance Tables in January 2018. It sounds a long way off. However the decision to do Reformed IGCSE or Gove's patent GCSE exams has to be taken this summer term. Unlike A level, co-teaching is not possible.
The pressure is on the state schools to do RGCSE and abandon the IGCSE, even if the Reformed versions, via the wholly illegitimate threat to exclude them from the performance tables. By the autumn if state schools capitulate to take RGCSEs for Maths and English, then we could be on the way to considerably higher failure rates by 2017, with other RGCSEs following suit in 2018 and even higher failure rates on a rolling problem. The system however moves into crisis well before 2018 if the HMC schools reject the Gove GCSE. (RGCSE for short) as the public schools may have an even marked advantage than the Sunday Times report noted.
The ban on IGCSE only applies to state schools, and only to performance tables – there is no real ban. However the performance table edict may pressure state schools to take the new GCSEs which are more like O Level than GCSE. Labour could make it clear that the ban will be lifted and state schools can do IGCSE. This should be implemented if Labour is in government after May. A system in which private and state schools do different exams at 16 plus is possible, and dangerous. Who wants exam apartheid?
Because OFQUAL has refused to test or pilot any of the exams, no one really knows whether Reformed GCSEs are harder than IGCSE. But a higher failure rate is certainly possible – in Maths and English from summer 2017. If Maths and English go down, followed by other GCSEs in 2018, the impact on post 16 will be dramatic. People who think A level is the problem have missed the point. If students don't pass GCSE, A level becomes irrelevant.
It is a fact that the local FE college here in Stafford is telling its students get your Maths and English GCSEs this summer, because they will be harder next year. And then there is the problem of Raising the Bar.
Raising the Bar
The underlying problem which applies from primary at age 4 is the theory of “Raising the Bar”. GCSE changes have to be seen medium term in this longer context. The theory, which was sold to the Lib Dems is the dogma that standards improve by “Raising the Bar”. At GCSE level Labour had allegedly 'dumbed down' GCSE, and has not argued against this, so presumably accepts the charge. But more profoundly the ConDems adopted across the board (from primary age 4 to 19 plus) the dogma that if you raise the bar (make tests harder) automatically performance improves. Students simply work harder and jump higher. The metaphor of the high jump isn't well founded, if my recall of the athletics at the Olympics is accurate, the athletes knocked the bar down and were eliminated the higher it was set. There is thus a bigger picture of the use of tests (and our kids are overtested) to be kept in mind.
The GCSE problem is the danger that the new harder courses won't be suitable and kids will start to fail, reversing the trend to more successes of the last 30 years (the reactionary perspective is that this is due to dumbing down, so the bar must be raised). It has been tried before. Harder exams normally lead to high failure rate, and this is what happened the last time it was tried, with Maths A level in Curriculum 2000, as Margaret Brown argued in the SOSS pamphlet. It took Maths A Level the best part of a decade to recover to its current healthy numbers (now Maths is the most widely taken A Level).
The immediate agenda
The immediate agenda is to get state teachers to do the Reformed IGCSE and ignore the 2018 performance tables - Labour should reverse the Gibb edict. But most state school teachers will inevitably do Gove's GCSEs and so the questions about English and Maths have to be answered. It is not too late to pilot them. The row over AQA maths (in January – led to testing) means there will be some data at least on Maths RGCSE.
Labour should immediately set in train an investigation into possible increased levels of failure and the direction of travel. There was a minor downturn in passes in 2014 when the no early entry rule kicked in, and it is a moot point what happened to the students who failed, particularly in English and Maths. This needs investigation, as students who fail cannot go on post 16. This pool of failed students is at risk of getting much bigger if schools go down the RGCSE line. The independent schools, who cannot afford to see their sixth forms shrinking, are unlikely to take the risk and will stick with IGCSE – this should be known by the summer. But why should state schools gamble with Gove? Is the role of performance tables so crucial they deny students the chance to get those all important passes to meet Performance Table criteria?
Longer term we need a better system for making decisions, preferably an independent commission on exams and testing. But for the next few months, addressing the Reformed GCSE must be a high priority. While Gove has passed his time in office – for the moment – his exam reforms are toxic and could become his most dangerous legacy if not challenged. The fact that the independent schools seem set to ignore Gove and continue switching to IGCSE should be sounding alarm bells.