GCSE Reforms: A Tale of Two (Confused) Issues

18th September 2012

The most puzzling thing about the GCSE reform announcements and consultation is how it conflates two entirely separate issues, yet no politicians so far seems to notice. That, or the Coalition are willfully blending two ideas together to make this seem like a more impressive reform than it actually is.

Here are the two separate issues raised by Gove, Clegg and the consultation:

(1)    An interplay of the league table accountability system mixed with market-based exam companies has encouraged exam boards to design ‘easier’ specifications which teachers then move to so that students have a better chance of getting a C. In doing so this has caused a ‘spiral of decline’ and exams have got easier and easier.

(2)    Currently about 35% of students don’t get a C in their GCSEs and this causes issues with  their progression. Furthermore, these students sit an exam which has easier material on it, relevant only to G-C grades, and so even if the student does get a C it is (arguably) not commensurate with a C gained by someone sitting a harder paper.

These are two distinct problems. But, somehow, they have become inflated into one enormous ‘crisis of exams’ and – in Paragraph 3.7 – they even appear to be causally linked.  The author of paragraph seems to suggest that because some exam boards have occasionally been lax in writing and controlling assessments this has caused students to struggle to proceed in their education.  That’s ridiculous.  While there are any number of reasons why students don’t get C grades – comprehension issues, valuing looking ‘cool’ over being smart, a hatred of writing, an inability to concentrate  for 2 hours – the idea that their D grades are being caused by the administrative decisions of people sitting far away in an exam office is the kind of logic that could only be believed by someone sitting in a far away office.

So instead of conflating the two issues, let us instead be clear:

(1)    Is there a problem with the accountability system and competing exam boards? Yes.

(2)    Does it cause students to miss out on Cs? No.

(3)    Will the GCSE reforms help the issue of accountability and competing exam boards? Probably. Having one exam board for each subject means that as long as the tendering process works smoothly and as long as Ofqual learn how to regulate the ease of an exam across years, then a ‘dumbing down’ is less likely to occur (though not impossible). An even better consequence of this system is that once a tender for an exam is given over – say for 5 or 10 years – there should be no political interference until that contract expires so politicians can’t edge in and scrap a paper simply because they feel like it.

(4)    Will the GCSE reforms help students at the lower end? The ones that Gove said had a “cap on their aspiration”?  No. There’s absolutely categorically nothing in this paper that will help a student who is currently in the D-G range.  Clegg can mumble on about helping ‘all children’ and ‘excluding none’ but that’s either because he hasn’t read this consultation paper or (more likely) he doesn’t really understand it. It is not because students haven’t studied the ‘A’ grade material that they do not get an A. They have not studied it because teachers are already spending all their time ensuring the student understands the foundational D-grade basics. Having the student sit in the hall and answer only the first four questions of a 25 question paper is not going to change that.

Not for the first time I am afraid that Gove has fallen foul of the Underpant Gnomes logic with an argument that appears to be: “Change exams…..mumbles….cleverer students”  This sort of sloppy thinking about causation runs right throughout the reform announcements and I urge anyone writing a response to the consultation to make clear that we see the trick and we’re not buying it.