September 2012

The know zone

  • Field of dreams
    The DfE's Olympic call for more sport in state schools – coinciding with the relaxing of regulations for school sport accommodation – has left the sport lobby up in arms. Richard Bird examines the potential legal impact... More
  • Say a little prayer...
    The government is ploughing ahead with its plans to reform school funding but what exactly will these changes be and how will they affect schools? Sam Ellis explains the many complexities of these proposals and looks at what they will mean for schools. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Henry Brook Adams, Margaret Meade, Victor Hugo and Donald Quinn More
  • Prince of tides
    Anthony Smith is executive head of Hipperholme and Lightcliffe High School (HLHS) on the outskirts of Halifax as well as the Fountain Springs Day Nursery and Maltings College which are based in a Grade II listed former brewery in the town. Next summer, he is swimming the Channel for Cancer Research UK. More
  • Learning Aid
    ProTrainings' first aid course helps students understand the fundamental principles of first aid and gives them the confidence to act in an emergency. More
  • Adding value
    Getting the best from your staff More
  • Reformed views
    Are GCSEs in need of reform or are they fit for purpose? The government is planning major reform to GCSEs that could lead to a return to O level-style qualifications and could give a single exam board responsibility for each subject. Here, leaders share their own views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Advice on Ofsted and Portable CRB checks? More
  • Grade inflation not just hot air
    ASCL's last Council meeting, on 21-22 June, took place well before GCSE results day. However, concerns about the future of exams and accusations of grade inflation were already high on the agenda. More
  • Weather the storm
    This year's English GCSE grading fiasco signals the beginning of a tempest of reform to curriculum and assessment. Brian Lightman sets out what is known so far – and more importantly what is not. More
  • Mr Gove
    The talk in Westminster has been of a re-shuffle and the name Gove has been much to the fore. So what might he do next? Peter Campling explores the possibilities. More
Bookmark and Share

This year's English GCSE grading fiasco signals the beginning of a tempest of reform to curriculum and assessment. Brian Lightman sets out what is known so far – and more importantly what is not.

Weather the storm

During the academic year 2012-13, school and college leaders will be implementing many changes introduced by the coalition government – in ways that serve the interests of the students in their care. Amidst all of the challenges that the sheer scale of this agenda presents, there is no doubt that qualifications and assessment will be the most demanding.

In spite of the large amount of ill-informed commentary on the subject of qualifications and assessment, as evidenced by some of the views expressed after this year's GCSE English debacle, it is difficult to conceive of a school or college leader who does not share the aspiration for our education service to hold its head high in comparison with any country.

We all know that there has never been a more pressing need for us as a nation to raise our game further, building on what has been achieved to date, in order to remain competitive in an immensely challenging global market.

We need to create versatile learners who can apply a wide range of transferable skills underpinned by a solid knowledge base in order to address complex problems with confidence. Assessment and qualifications are one part of the jigsaw in this respect.

The challenges that school and college leaders face are nothing to do with resistance to change. Rather, the question in all of our minds is how we make this work without damaging the education of our learners, even though there are some major flaws in the way that reform is being implemented.

Alarming uncertainty

As I write this in August, and bearing in mind my relatively privileged position in terms of information on the latest developments, I am alarmed at what I still do not know. What I do know is as follows:

As the new term begins, GCSE is in a state of flux. In some schools confidence has been severely shaken due to the appalling changes within this year's English grading. Hard-working students are receiving inconsistent messages about the value of the examinations they are taking while being exhorted to have higher aspirations. Teachers commencing courses this term have prepared for the implementation of spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) and the revised list of approved qualifications.

Modular tests are set to be abolished – even though most university degrees follow a similar structure. In some subjects such as geography, the specifications have been changed quite substantially and were only received by schools during the last week of term.

The uncertainty surrounding the detail of these changes was only compounded by the leaked story about O levels and a vast amount of speculation about a possible move to a single examination board at least for each of the core subjects. Amongst the other rumours flying around the following appear fairly regularly:

  • an intention to move away from the five A*-C grades' indicator (not unwelcome provided it is replaced by an intelligent alternative) and to include a stronger focus on core subjects in performance tables – which we thought was already a priority
  • the idea of rank-ordering pupils' results both within school and nationally – which raises all kinds of questions
  • a rebranding of GCSE with a possible removal of tiering – which begs questions about the detail and reflection on the two-tier system that GCSE was introduced to replace.

School leaders tell me how some heads of department have had to ‘work blind' preparing courses leading to qualifications that may not exist in anything like their current form when the students sit their examinations in two years' time. They know that they may have to switch during the course so it follows that the students do not actually know what they have opted for.

In 2014, the plan appears to be that a new set of Key Stage 4 examinations will be introduced alongside the new National Curriculum about which, as yet, nothing official has been announced other than what we know about the primary National Curriculum. In particular, the announcement that levels are to be abolished raises enormous questions about the assessment of pupil progress.

On top of all of this A levels are undergoing similar change with much uncertainty about what the new examinations might look like and little discernible interest from universities in drafting or setting new qualifications.

A frenzied approach

ASCL is seriously concerned about the potential damage this frenzied implementation programme could do to the credibility of an examination system which, in spite of the negative press it frequently receives here, is highly respected internationally.

The danger of rushed implementation is twofold: on the one hand there is a significant risk that the awarding bodies, through no fault of their own, will not be able to conduct adequate preparation in order to complete this task to the required standard leading to a risk of errors and inadequate quality assurance.

At school and college level, the risks impact directly on students and staff. From the students' point of view, they will be taking courses that are being taught for the first time by teachers who have little detail about the precise requirements. There is a big difference between the kind of teaching to the test driven by unintelligent forms of accountability that the government has been criticising and the kind of preparation that lies at the heart of the professional duties of a teacher.

If the students are inadequately prepared, this could have far-reaching consequences towards their career chances. If schools are ill-prepared (through no fault of their own) then as well as doing a disservice to students they could find themselves falling foul of our high-stakes accountability system in the shape of a poor Ofsted report or a disastrous result in the performance tables, both of which have a tendency to put the livelihood of school leaders in jeopardy.

Reality check

We are in desperate need of a coherent strategy towards the curriculum and assessment containing a realistic implementation plan announced at one time and subject to full and genuine consultation with school and college leaders, awarding bodies and all stakeholders.

I have argued that ASCL members could help with many of the things the government is trying to achieve without this chaotic and piecemeal change: 

  • To address concerns expressed in some quarters that GCSE does not do enough to stretch the most able, it would be perfectly possible to adjust existing specifications.
  • In terms of the general rigour of the curriculum, a simple statement of priorities from central government could free school leaders from the uncertainty around the outcome of the National Curriculum review and give us space to get on with planning the curriculum holistically to ensure that it has an appropriate balance of knowledge, skills and understanding and that it is tailored to the needs of individual communities.
  • Developing teachers' assessment skills, by ensuring that there was a chartered assessor in every school, would enable us to reduce the costly burden caused by an over-reliance in Britain on externally assessed examinations.

ASCL will continue to make the case for these kinds of improvements but, in the meantime, we are making it top priority to provide our members with the latest information in order to help navigate through this confusing landscape.

Find out more

ASCL's Curriculum and Assessment Specialist Sue Kirkham will be giving a comprehensive update on curriculum and qualifications at the forthcoming round of information conferences. See the ASCL website for more details and to book a place