Saturday, 8 September 2012

English GCSE - D minus to the exam boards

In a previous post I wrote about the difficulties created by moving the goal posts on A Level exam marking at the end of the course.  I said then that it would be interesting to see what would happen with English GCSE results this year and it seems even worse than I had feared. 

A brief summary of the situation so far – there was a noticeable slump in grades at GCSE English this summer and it rapidly became apparent that the grade boundaries had been changed so that most results went down by a grade from where they had previously been set.  This seemed particularly unfair, not just because of the unannounced nature of the change but also because if students had set the paper earlier in the year they had been graded under the previous boundaries.  In real terms this meant that the same work written in an exam would have received an A in November but a B in August.  Work worthy of a B grade earlier in the year would only gain a C in the summer exam of the same academic year and so on down the grades.  Common sense suggests that this is both unfair and capricious. 

Ofqual (the exam board regulator) conducted an enquiry into the slump in grades and concluded that this was what had happened but that there was no reason to change the boundaries.  The fig leaf offered for this decision was that the exam boards had greater insight into the work of the cohort in the later sitting of the exam.

Unsurprisingly this response has been viewed by schools, pupils and parents as completely unsatisfactory.  Michael Gove, newly re-confirmed as Education Secretary in the Cabinet re-shuffle, said on the Today programme on Radio 4, “Everyone who took the exam was treated in a way that wasn’t fair or appropriate.”  He has though refused to intervene which is slightly at odds with his willingness to be the most hands-on and vigorous Minister for Education for years.

This situation seems fundamentally unfair and leads to an enormous sense of injustice for pupils, parents and teachers.  I am delighted that HMC, the professional association of leading independent schools to which I belong, is joining in with other associations and unions to vigorously challenge the situation. 

I am all for increasing rigour in the exam system but the way to do this is to increase the standards required in exam answers, set tougher questions and ensure the syllabus is demanding.  This needs to be done strategically and in collaboration with schools – not imposed in the disorganised and unjust way we have seen this year.