“Stop Whining About the 1950s”: What Are The Actual Problems of the EBC/GCSE Reforms?

21st January 2013

There are a lot of questions still unanswered about the policy and though it’s worrying that the government is evading their answer we must remember the policy still hasn’t been fully announced. The consultation only closed recently and we now must wait and see what will emerge. Still, there is yet  another Education Select Committee slated for Wednesday morning about the matter that might provide clues as to what’s going on.

In the meantime what is not helpful are the noises being made by the Labour Party. Complaints about ‘going back to the 1950s’, 21st century learning’ and ‘not all kids can be academic’ are grist to the Coalition mill.  Facts are: this is a new policy – it is not the 1950s. Learning is learning, whether it’s happening now or a hundred years ago and if Conservatives were the ones saying ‘not all kids can be academic’ there would be an outcry.

Labour’s bleating also means they are not asking the serious questions about EBCs:

(1)    What problem are EBCs trying to solve?Graham Stuart, the vociferous Chair of the Education Select Committee, has repeatedly pointed out that EBCs are being introduced because GCSEs have become ‘bankrupt’ is a fallacy.  In 2011, when removing equivalences, 48% of students did not achieve even five A*-C grades. As Stuart pointed out in the House of Commons debate: “If the GCSE currency is so bankrupt, weak and devalued, and yet half of children are failing to achieve that measure, it is not obvious that pushing it up will magically lift performance.”

(2)    How do EBCs solve the ‘two-tier’ issue?Gove has continually (and correctly) mentioned that GCSE papers are currently separated. Because GCSEs cover a wide range of abilities – from A* to G grade – having pupils sit one paper that tests such a wide range of knowledge would mean making exams prohibitively long and, for the most part, quite pointless. If every student had to answer every question then an A* student could be spending the first 90 minutes answering questions way below their current level of ability. A student whose ability level is around an E grade, however, might only be able to answer a few questions in total which could only interrogate a tiny amount of their knowledge meaning the grade would be a much more crude reflection of their ability. For this reason school pupils currently sit papers with questions covering certain grades – mostly commonly a Foundation Paper (G to C grade) or Higher paper (D to A* grade).  This does mean teachers must make a decision about papers students enter, and it can mean a ‘cap on aspiration’ for students entered in Foundation papers, though most teachers only enter students for the lower paper if they are expected to get a D or below. If the student is a solid D, or there is a hint of a C grade based on mock exam performance, students are entered for Higher papers.

Gove has therefore argued that the new EBC will ‘remove’ this two-tier issue and remove the cap on aspiration. But there are two sticking points. First, Ofqual have explained that no currently existing exams can successfully test students across such a large ability range. Second, if GCSEs and EBCs exist in some subjects then GCSEs will most likely become a default ‘lower tier’ thus creating a 2-tier problem. At present there is only one qualification – a GCSE – regardless of which paper you take. But if EBCs are considered ‘rigorous’ and GCSEs then become considered as ‘non-rigorous’ Gove will actually wish into life the 2-tier system he purports to be against.

(3)    Given that linear exams and reduced controlled assessments can (and have) already be written into GCSE specifications, why not just do that instead of creating new EBCs?When I finished school in the 90s GCSEs were examined solely at the end of the course and several assessed solely by exam. In the 2000s modular exams were introduced, as were controlled assessments. Since 2010 Gove has decided that GCSEs will become linear again, and there is no reason why new GCSE exam specifications in 2015 couldn’t simply have a reduced amount (or even no) coursework if it was suitable for the subject. Problem solved.

EBCs are therefore another government solution that lacks a problem and given the enormous staff reductions happening in the DfE this year it would surely be in everyone’s interests if people were not being diverted to trying to resolve an EBC headache when GCSE amendments would suffice.

But there is one more issue of the EBC reforms:  Single exam board franchising.

Gove wants a single exam board to run each of the core EBC subjects. There are some strong arguments for why this would be a sensible way to stop a ‘race to the bottom’ among exam boards. But the speed of the move to single boards, especially when coupled with the confused EBC policy, means the risks inherent in this change are enormous. Nick Gibb, former Coalition Minister for Schools, recently pointed out that exams are a multi-million pound business and warned of the difficulties this presents. Yet even though everyone knows the process is complex and involves huge financing, Gove recently admitted that there is no plan to have a ‘contract’ with exam boards but instead to have a regulated ‘relationship’ in order that EU law be avoided.

In the words of Pat Glass MP during the House of Commons debate on this matter: “Good luck with that! I do not think that will fool anybody, least of all the courts…We look as if we are doing for examinations what has been done in rail and energy, which has not exactly been a huge success

Glass isn’t wrong. The recent Laidlaw report –  written as part of the investigation into the recent fiasco over the West Coast Mainline rail franchise – describes in detail how critical it is that the franchising of a public service has credible timelines, clear regulations and crystal clear terms of reference before bids for public services are put in place.  Not doing this in railway franchising, and then being caught short, has so far cost taxpayers £45 million and counting.

That Gove is repeating several of these mistakes was highlighted by the Chair in a recent Education Select Committee when he explained that exam boards are only going to have the period between Easter and June to write a bid for their multi-million pound services. He added: “I have not found anyone from any of the awarding bodies who does not think that they are trying to design in the dark at the moment on the basis of inadequate briefing”. 

This exam franchising stuff is a problem that must be addressed.Getting trains to continue operating while the grownups figure out how they made a mess is possible if expensive. Messing up children’s one shot at educations is not so straightforward and Gove’s dismissal that every organisation wishes “it had more time” is not a sober enough response to the gravity of the risks faced.

Hopefully, in Wednesday’s Education Select Committee, its members will quit it with the ‘21st century’ bleating and instead separate out and rigorously investigate the two key issues that Gove needs to tackle head on: (1) What is it about EBCs that cannot be done within the GCSE framework (and is that difference worth the 2-tier problem that EBCs might bring about)?, and (2) Why is the Secretary of State ignoring what was learned in the Laidlaw report and proposing such a risky exam board tender process?