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The Gove legacy undermines exams

school examsThere is a broad consensus on education policy across the main parties at Westminster, which has only cracked in two areas: (i) Labour is demanding qualified teacher status in state schools and it does so with solid parental support; (ii) less immediately controversial is a split over exam reform.

Despite cross party support for exam reform, the planned decoupling of the AS and A Level exam systems, has destabilised the consensus with Labour opposing the split. Michael Gove’s planned return to traditional end-of-course exams was intended to build support among academic traditionalists and the wider public but criticism has mounted. The GCSE pass rate has dropped from 59.2% to 52.6% focussing attention on the GCSE reforms – still supported by Labour, unlike the AS reforms.

Even the elite Russell Group of universities has objected to the A Level reforms. Gove set up ALCAB, (the A Level Content Advisory Board), loosely linked to the Group, to implement a manifesto pledge to return A Levels to university control. However Gove only allowed universities to recommend content. The ALCAB maths panel report argued that content is only the tip of the iceberg.

According to the letter, signed off by ALCAB maths chair, Professor Richard Craster of Imperial College London, “there are several wider issues of importance that have arisen” these being “assessment, structure and delivery”. The letter pointed out that the mathematicians had dutifully followed their remit and worked on content but said “that does not mean that we are confident that all the measures we suggest will result in an improvement on the present provision, or, crucially, that they will sustain the present level of uptake”.

Mathematicians are acutely sensitive to recruitment of students, having been badly burned by the Curriculum 2000 (C2000) reforms which resulted in 20 per cent of maths candidates abandoning the subject by 2002. Maths took the best part of a decade to regain student numbers. The maths panel reminded the DfE that “Decreases in uptake for AS further mathematics could have unintended consequences in terms of widening participation”. This this applies to all subjects, not just maths.

The letter noted that “there have been no pilot schemes, no sample assessments from awarding organisations, nor trialling with teacher panels”. Indeed, the reforms are flying blind, but this is true of all A level subjects. OFQUAL, the regulator, simply refuses to carry out trials. Maths is in fact in a better position than other major subjects. Mindful of the C2000 experience, OFQUAL allowed maths A Level to wait till September 2016. For the other major subjects (70% of A Level entries), the reforms start in ten months time with no testing.

Will Gove’s reforms restore declining confidence? A YouGov poll in February-March conducted for OFQUAL showed declining confidence in school exams. the poll gave A Level a higher level of confidence than GCSE. The five groups surveyed – Heads, classroom teachers, parents, the general public and students – gave a 68% score of those confident about A levels. However, at a time when the Gove reforms were only just starting to bite, the survey concluded that loss of confidence was increasing. Only 4% of parents and heads, and 2% of teachers, had a higher level of confidence than the previous year. Those with direct contact with the system showed the highest levels of confidence but they were also losing confidence most rapidly. Over a quarter of Heads (28%), students and teachers (27%) had less confidence in A Levels than the previous year.

Gove’s supporters are hoping that the major reforms, due next autumn, will quell criticism. However the 2014 survey found that “’Perceived constant change in the exam system’ dominated opinion across all respondent groups”. This has been led by the perception that the marking of A Level and GCSE papers has deteriorated over the last two years, as the Gove reforms have accelerated. This complaint featured in the Head Masters Conference (HMC) in September, picking up on an OFQUAL report that at least 6% (950,000 scripts) of A Level examiners were inadequate.

The HMC also reported that the shake up, and removal of AS from the Alevel system would impact on university entrance. It predicted in September that more students would face aptitude tests if Admissions Tutors could not use AS grades. The A Level grades would be unknown, and the AS as a stand alone qualification would be useless. Increasing numbers of the independent schools represented in the HMC were considering abandoning A Levels to take the international A Level exam which is banned to state schools.

This is not a matter of the private sector defending its own interests, since the HMC recognises that aptitude tests would benefit them. They have the resources for coaching, unlike cash-strapped state schools.

OFQUAL released on 21st October data that supported claims that examining is becoming less reliable. Provisional figures for 2014 showed that Enquiries about Results (EAR) increased by 56% for GCSE and A level enquiries increased by 37%. Twenty per cent of GCSE and A level papers sent back for remarking received a different grade, an increase of 15% over 2013. This could indicate an increased awareness of the right of appeal rather than a decline in marking standards. However, the impact of the changes must be part of the ongoing OFQUAL enquiry. The number of grades increased after remarking on Gove’s watch has risen by 65% for GCSE and 71% for A Level from 2011 to 2014.

Without pilots or other trials, we cannot say whether the reformed exams will work. We can say that Gove has left Nicky Morgan with a growing headache. She has committed herself to reducing increased bureaucratic workload on classroom teachers, without spelling out details. Exam reform is an immediate issue. In the next ten months, some secondary teachers will have a massively increased workload to track and prepare for a system which reverses trends of the last twenty years. What resources are being made available for this, in particular training in syllabus delivery? The impact is unevenly spread across the different subjects. English teachers have to deliver both GCSE and A Level reforms within the next ten months. How can this be done?

The government planned to resolve the controversy over school exam standards by turning the clock back to the 1950s. However it is unpicking much valuable work which has helped children achieve more exam passes than in the fifties, in the teeth of considerable opposition from experts. On exams at least cracks are appearing in general consensus on the Gove agenda.


  1. James Martin says:

    Actually Gove, for all his many faults, at least recognised some of the problems relating to exams, but of course he failed to propose the correct solutions.

    Take exam boards. These are private profit making bodies in competition with each other to get market share, but like the big utilities companies there are too few of them to make the ‘competition’ real in terms of driving down the financial cost to schools (and of course the state). But the rewards are huge. Every time a school chooses, say, AQA for their A-Level or GCSE English exams they must at the same time buy in to all that goes with that, the course materials, education software and the (very expensive) text books.

    But while there is little to no competition in terms of cost with this cartel set up, what there has always been is a competition relating to grade inflation. So I remember in one school a switch from AQA to Edexel for history papers, and while the teachers were the same and the kids were no more or less bright than the previous year group, that year’s results in that school saw a 15% uplift – and in the age of league tables that matters to the schools that play this game.

    So in terms of Labour policy what do we need to do as regards exam reform and returning to ‘rigour’ (as Gove always liked to say)? Easy – start with nationalising the exam boards and creating a single state run national body for all subjects alongside independent academic scrutiny to prevent political interference when it comes to determining the ‘golden mean’ for grade distribution each year (which was always the other reason – particularly it has to be said under New Labour – why results got better year in year out).

    The issue of final end of year or course work is more complex (statistically boys do far better in the former, girls in the latter), not least because at one time in certain subjects surveys indicated that well over half of course work not done under proper exam conditions was done not by pupils but parents etc.

    Of course the wider socialist debate needs to be not on the best way to academically measure a child in the limited ways we currently do, but on how we can develop collective and collaborative approaches to education that involve wider communities and where we can then see ‘success’ as far more than a piece of paper showing who is ‘best’ at the end of 11 or 13 years of school.

  2. the point about course work is valid, I stopped doing coursework in 1982 because it was clear parents were doing it. But removing speaking and listening from English was a disaster allegedly because of cheating, but really because the cost of having independent examiners visiting schools to record the pupils was too great for the system. Allegedly and never stated publically. It is still being discussed for modern languages as not having orals is clearly stupid.

    For the rest, the commercial factor is not significant. Only one board – the Edexcel board – is run for profit, by Pearson. There is no requirement to take the textbooks for an exam board, and I never did before I retired in 2009. As far as I can see, only Edexcel has linked books and they were not compulsory last time I looked. THough chief examiners would give another impression

    As for the nationalization solution, I can only say what Marx said to the Prussian social democrats when they proposed nationalizing education in Prussia, do you really want the Junkers telling children what to think? (the term brainwashing had not been invented)

    The only victory the Lib Dems had over Gove on exams was to stop him creating one exam board. As a historian, the idea of a politician setting the questions my pupils had to answer reminds me of Soviet Communism at its worst.

    There does need to be a debate on the future of exams. But the reality is that in 10 months time, the Gove revised exams begin. Time to get active in opposition I think

    trevor fisher.

    1. James Martin says:

      Your anti-socialist thinking does you no favours Trevor. For starters, in the USSR regardless of anything else people were highly educated and produced large numbers of academics scientists who led the world in their respective fields. The same is not true after the capitalist restoration. But to take a more current example, Cuba has a nationalised non-market led and collaborative community based education system, and again as a result it has one of the best educated populations and highest literacy rates in the world.

  3. John Reid says:

    well said james

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