Have the Tories wrecked GCSE?

Trevor Fisher's picture
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
Trevor Fisher
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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 08:27

Trevor - my Schools Week article, '"Rigour" Mortis for Gove GCSEs? also expresses concern about the reformed GCSEs especially Ofqual's comparison between, sample papers, 'current' GCSE papers (actually 2011/12) and international tests (many of which are now out-of-date or being abandoned).

The exam system in England is a mess. Schools, parents and, above all, the pupils who will have to take these untrialed, untested exams, should be enraged.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 08:28

More woes for the new GCSEs. Schools Week features an article by SEN teacher, Mary Meredith, claiming the proposed English Literature GCSE could breach equality laws.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 09:26

Trevor - It is indeed necessary to create a statistically and educationally sound basis for assessing and grading end of KS4 attainment, and I agree with you that these GCSE 'reforms' are no such thing.

Such an assessment system is necessary in order to inform student choices post 16. It should not be 'high stakes' for schools. A sound assessment system needs to establish objective standards of 'difficulty' for each grade, comparability between subjects (so far as possible), encourage effective deep learning, be resistant to 'gaming' and support the individual cognitive development of pupils. It is also necessary to ensure comparability with international standards so that the market driven race to the bottom that characterised the English system in the era of the 'vocational scam' can never happen again.

The first step is to tie grades to criterion referenced statements of attainment. I propose going back to Bloom for this. This is how I think a new system could match Bloom's Taxonomy of the 1950s. In the following system a new numerical grade, which I think is better regarded as a 'level', is matched to a Bloom attainment category.

L9 - Exceptional
L8 - Synthesis, Evaluation and Creativity
L7 - Analysis
L6 - Application
L5 - Understanding - Piaget formal - Kahneman System 2
L4 - Understanding - Piaget concrete - Kahneman System 1
L3 - More Knowledge Still
L2 - More Knowledge
L1 - Some significant Knowledge

To qualify for the award of a particular level it would be necessary for the pupil to demonstrate some capability at that level. An award made at any given level signifies competence in working at all the preceding levels. It is therefore a developmental approach.

If you don't like Piaget, then I suggest you try Kahneman's interpretation of Piaget's distinction between concrete and formal operations. There was an excellent BBC2 'Horizon' programme broadcast on 24 February 2014 called, 'How you really make decisions'.


I discuss the relevance of Kahneman to education here.


I have corresponded about this with Michael Shayer. This is what he wrote to me when I asked him about the link between Piaget and Kahneman.

"I would say that Piaget's concrete operational thinking, that I usually think of as descriptive thinking, actually shows in great detail what the agenda of [Kahneman's] System 1 thinking is. Indeed Piaget himself said that formal thinking is of value only when it is asked to do further work [Kahneman's Slow Thinking] on what is already a well-described situation in concrete operational terms."

I regard this as a profound insight. This is where 'metacognition' comes in. Metacognition is 'thinking about thinking'. It is an essential part of both Piaget's 'formal' thinking, and of Kahneman's 'slow, System 2 thinking'.

Some will say that what I am proposing cannot be done. To this I reply that it HAS been done in a nationally accredited, all subject. GCSE scheme.

I refer to the 'Leicestershire Modular Framework'. This is fully described in Section 5.7 of 'Learning Matters'. My book also sets out the theoretical foundations for such an approach.


Note to Janet: This comment will be held up because there are three links. Could you please 'unpin' it ASAP.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 09:42

And perish the thought the DfE would actually canvass the opinion of the teaching profession on the matter.

PiqueABoo's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 21:36

Why do the exam boards escape censure?

The maximum difficulty wasn't deemed 'too hard', it was essentially the mean difficulty. Interestingly some maths teachers blamed lack of literacy i.e. children's inability to cope with the wordier PISA-like questions. Perhaps English needs a little less terminology for literary analysis and a little more fundamental comprehension.

It's also interesting how they must have properly representative sample exams 2 - 3 years ahead of time given that there is a syllabus. Do you really need to see some representative questions before teaching say quadratic equations? Is this simply a reflection of how deeply teach-to-test is embedded?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 08:45

PiqueABoo - I agree with you on both points. Verbal reasoning, of which comprehension is an essential starting point, is clearly very important in maths and science. It follows from developmental, deep learning approaches. You are right that any teacher should be able to judge if the pupils actually understand what is being taught. (See the cover of 'Learning Matters'). It is surely for exam boards to devise assessments that can discriminate between levels of deep understanding. This should not have to be adjusted according to pilots (except for technical issues like flawed/ambiguous wording in questions). It is not for the exam boards to adjust their products to what pupils can do and therefore what they can sell to schools. It is for the education system to promote, not penalise, a culture of developmental deep learning that is continuously informed by tests of what pupils can actually do and understand.

This is indeed a reflection of many decades of the 'teaching to the test' culture that has resulted from a high stakes, marketised, target and league table driven culture that itself corrodes standards. The very ideology that appears to demand higher standards is actually responsible for preventing them being attained.

agov's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 16:31

Sorry, just need* to do a test.

* "need" as defined by me.

[Reply test02]

PiqueABoo's picture
Sat, 06/06/2015 - 20:19

I'm patting myself on the back having made that comment the evening before Edexcel provided a perfect example: the 'viral' Hannah sweets GCSE higher tier question part (a) which also happens to feature a quadratic equation.

It was fascinating to observe how many trained monkeys (both 15-16 year-olds and random adults on comment threads) ignored or were incapable of comprehending the text of the question and insisted on following the quadratic recipe to deliver the wrong answer.

I tried the question on Y7 Sprogette who is a maths whizz and she managed to wriggle (mentally and physically) her way to the correct answer because she was taught conditional probability at middling state primary school and has now done enough algebra at middling state secondary. Although she's a fierce puzzle solver that wriggling was because she doesn't really get using algebra as a tool to solve problems with unknowns etc. Although it is still Y7 and might get better, I think teach-to-test has side-lined much of algebra's raison d'etre.

Another aspect I notice a lot is the lack of the stories and context around the learning. I have many examples, but the most recent last week concerned a lesson on some of the Frankenstein novel. Sprogette knew who wrote it, but couldn't say which century it was written, which century it was set and other things like "romantic movement", "Byron" and "Geneva" were absent. Far too much seems trimmed back to need-to-know now, essentially Archimedes principle without the Eureka.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 06/06/2015 - 20:55

You deserve your pat on the back PiquABoo. I am happy to add mine. It is refreshing to read your learning - based comments.

Sprogette deserves one too. We will not get away from dull formulaic responses until a sound culture of education transcends the culture of training pupils to pass exams.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 06/06/2015 - 20:58

A point for the site manager - I made my last comment at 9.55 pm not 8.55, unless we are on European, not UK time.

agov's picture
Sun, 07/06/2015 - 11:39

Well spotted Roger but I think you've got it the wrong way round. If it was Paris time it would have shown 10.55 pm. (Iceland would have been 8.55 pm.) Presumable it's using GMT.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 07/06/2015 - 12:07

Thanks agov - silly me - GMT it is.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Wed, 10/06/2015 - 05:10

the big issue here is not about maths GCSE. It is about the failure of the regulator. To read that the exam boards should not escape censure is beyond me. OFQUAL as the TES rightly said is required to regulate to make the exam boards equal, and approved exams that were unequal.

The government is now gunning of OFQUAL, but they should not escape responsibility. The exam boards were just obeying orders

if it is true that the English exams may breach equality laws, there are so many more reasons for doing IGCSE. And teachers should do so

Trevor Fisher

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