Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Exam reforms - concern deepens over Gove's plans

A letter appears in The Times newspaper today from the Chairs of HMC, GSA and the Society of Heads raising deep concern about proposed new GCSEs and A Levels.  The letter is reproduced below but the headline issue for me is the question of whether students should still be able to take AS exams halfway through their Sixth Form. Universities want to keep them as do the various Heads associations but still there is no reply from Michael Gove.  To not even respond in the face of such concerns could be seen as deeply worrying.  However, given Gove's tendency to come out fighting when he is challenged this might be an indication that he is reflecting seriously on whether it is such a good idea.

To reiterate the main concerns:

  • New courses were meant to be taught in some A Level subjects starting in September 2015.  These have been delayed by a year.
  • If AS exams are scrapped at the end of the Lower Sixth there has been no discussion or indication as to whether students would study three A Levels on their own or perhaps take an AS exam at the end of two years.  The latter option would be an enormous headache for those responsible for timetabling in schools.
  • New courses at GCSE and A Level are apparently still on their way but schools have not been given any information about them.

This current situation is not helping anyone - students, parents, teachers or universities. Nor is it doing any favours for the reputation of Michael Gove or UK education in the eyes of the world. I am going to a conference in London on March 20th being run by Ofqual (the government ombudsman for education and examinations), it will be very interesting to see what they have to say.  At the very least, Michael Gove needs to engage with school leaders so that this situation can be put right.


Sir, We should like to repeat our concern about the nature of public exam reform, and the speed proposed for it. With regard to content, it is a retrograde step to abandon AS level which has many advantages, as our leading universities all maintain.
With regard to timetable, the introduction of some new exams has been delayed a year: others have not been delayed. Many specifications, even for the earlier tranche of new exams, remain unclear. At GCSE, for example, the new “Big Maths” is said to involve anything up to double the content of the current exam. Teaching for it will therefore need to begin in year 9: starting this September. The syllabus is not yet written.
Other subjects will presumably be downgraded in terms of curricular time to allow for this change. This will involve potential redundancies in schools; and additionally it is estimated that up to 2,000 new maths teachers will need to be recruited. We are not confident that such a pool of talent exists. That there are to be no pilots of any of these new examinations and grading structures raises further concern for the pupils whose futures will be affected by the qualifications they gain.
We call upon the Secretary of State to listen to the concerns of teaching professionals. All new exams should be delayed until the same start date, enabling simplicity and clarity, and preventing the errors which will undoubtedly ensue if regard is not paid to due diligence.
Timothy Hands, Chairman, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference; Alice Phillips, President, the Girls’ Schools Association; Richard Palmer, Chairman, the Society of Heads