The problems created by GCSE reform took a new twist at the end of May. Despite the new exam courses in Maths and English due to start in September, regulator OFQUAL admitted to serious problems with the level of difficulty of maths GCSE. The different boards were not running comparable courses and existing guidelines should be scrapped.
The maths GCSE became controversial at the end of 2014 when two exam boards – there are four offering the GCSE – complained the AQA exam was too easy though all four specifications had been approved by OFQUAL. This played to the Tory belief that there is a “Race to the Bottom” - exam boards offering easy options – and OFQUAL finally ran the pilots which it had previously refused to run.
The results were reported at the end of May. They were worse than expected. While AQA was indeed too easy, the other three were in fact too hard. The Times Educational Supplement (TES) reporting "three of the boards had set exams that were too tough and the fourth had produced a paper that was too easy”. OFQUAL ordered new sample papers to be drawn up - though this will only allow teachers a few weeks to prepare before the new courses start.
The problems are not confined to maths. The science papers are also to be re-examined because of the maths content in science, which apparently has not been evaluated properly and certainly has not been piloted for any of the science GCSEs.
The editor of the TES wrote on 29th May “For schools this is a disaster. Where they need certainty and confidence they now have doubt and fear”. This is exactly right, and the maths problem directly affecting science, points to systemic problems with the reforms which critics including myself have been pointing out for over two years.
The TES criticised OFQUAL, and this is indeed justified. OFQUAL under its head, Glenys Stacey, has indeed been inadequate, but the problems were created by politicians in Westminster. As this site has already discussed over IGCSE – in January over the removal of IGCSE from the performance tables, on April 14th over Gove's legacy – the buck stops in Westminster.
Politicians rule the reforms
School exam reforms were driven by Gove's desire to have exam reform up and running by the May 2015 election. He succeeded, but the reforms were never pre-tested (piloting). OFQUAL claimed pilot tests were unreliable, which was never the case. When Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey replied to a question I put to her at an exam conference in October 2013 to this effect, she ignored previous successful attempts to pilot reforms.
GCSE was always high risk, not strongly based in evidence that the exam was failing. Nor was reform equitably and logically pursed, since it was decided to do A Level first and the major resources went into A Level. While as Richard Pring and I pointed out in an article in the Times Educational Supplement on August 8th 2014. all exams needed piloting, and this was entirely feasible. With GCSE there is a rival International exam which could be used for comparison, but OFQUAL did not do comparison studies. Indeed IGCSE has been treated as a pariah. IGCSE was excluded from Performance Tables in January 2015 by Nick Gibb – though illogically schools can still take it. However this is not widely known. It must become a real option for state schools to take from September if they feel it is appropriate.
Ofqual has limits but politicians decide.
The lack of piloting for other GCSEs, due to start in 2016 is worrying as it is hard to believe maths alone is a problem. If Maths problems only came to light through exam boards protesting that one was too easy, something now confirmed by pilots, what other problems lie ahead? Indeed as three year courses in subjects other than maths and English can start this autumn the problems may happen very rapidly. Teachers would be ill advised to start three year courses. They should continue with tried and tested existing GCSEs. While Maths is now in chaos, English should be investigated as a matter of urgency. The other changes should be suspended pending an independent inquiry.
The editor of the TES said (May 29th) that “It is unacceptable that OFQUAL appears unable to ensure that exams are set at the right level; after all, that is its job”. This and other comments are valid, but not that 'ministerial fury' was a significant issue.
While OFQUAL has been seriously inadequate, the root cause of the problems lie with politicians. The TES reported on May 29th that politicians are putting OFQUAL's role “under review”, with Nicky Morgan condemning the removal of science practicals. Let everyone be clear where these disasterous decisions come from. The buck stops in Westminster. But as Sue Pope of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics told the TES, “teachers said in the first place that the papers weren't comparable”, and were ignored.
The root cause of all these issues is the closed world of Westminster and the decisions made by politicians. The GCSE changes must be suspended and scrutinised to remove the risk of major disasters for 16 plus examining in the years ahead
3rd June 2015