Beyond the grade

Pupils will be ranked nationally as part of the new O-level-style qualifications

William Stewart

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Pupils will be given national rankings according to their exact scores in the new O level-style exams being planned by Michael Gove, TES has learned. Sources close to the education secretary said that he intends to introduce the controversial idea, proposed last year for A-level students, as part of his overhaul of the exams system for 16-year- olds.

Certificates for the qualifications replacing GCSEs in English, maths and science would go beyond a simple grade. They would include the candidate's ranking and a graph showing where they placed in the overall distribution of scores.

The news came as exams watchdog Ofqual said that the development of the qualifications would not stop existing plans to radically reform GCSEs in other subjects. Schools now face the introduction of new O level-style exams, redesigned GCSEs and tougher A levels all at the same time.

Meanwhile, in yet another week of developments for the secondary exams system, TES has learned that:

- the new "O levels" will not be norm-referenced, meaning that top grades will not be limited to a fixed proportion of pupils;

- Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey has advised the government that attempting to push through too many reforms at once risks "failure";

- exam boards competing for franchises to run the new exams from 2016-20 would be expected to show how they would guard against grade inflation;

- a senior official from one of England's biggest school exam boards has privately described the timescale for the changes as "madness".

Also this week, the Commons Education Select Committee rejected Mr Gove's plans for single exam boards for individual subjects in favour of a system of national exam syllabuses.

The education secretary first suggested publishing candidates' rankings as well as their grades in relation to A levels last October. But he admitted at the time that it "could be a completely wrongheaded idea". Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, has argued that ranking pupils on exam results would "brand individual young people for life".

Sources said the ranking information could be distributed beyond individual exam certificates, although there is no suggestion that pupils' identities would be revealed. But this does raise the possibility of individual exam marks being used for school league tables and other accountability measures.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said that any attempt to use the rankings for league tables would be "complete nonsense".

This week, Ms Stacey said the exams system could be on the edge of a "seismic shift". But the chief regulator said that "whatever the outcome" of the leaked "O level" proposals, "GCSEs will remain for the foreseeable future, in some if not all subjects".

"We have set out our plans for GCSEs and they remain unchanged," she said. These include reviewing the A*-G grading structure, controlled assessment and the number of subjects covered. The changes are due to be implemented between 2012 and 2015 - the same period proposed for the development of the O level-style exams.

Ms Stacey added that GCSEs would remain "absolutely relevant" in subjects other than English, maths and science for "some time yet". Major changes to A levels are also planned, with the introduction of the first new exams planned for 2014 - a timetable that Ofqual admits is "very tight".

Asked if all this was achievable simultaneously, Ms Stacey said: "The more change you layer, the bigger the totality of change, and the advice we give to government is about managing and sequencing change so as to reduce the risks of failure."

This week, a senior exam board figure privately described Mr Gove's timetable for new O level-style exams as "madness", warning that it could lead to a repeat of the 2008 Sats fiasco, when tens of thousands of results went missing.

Graham Stuart, Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, urged the government to plan for the long term and not to rush changes. The committee wants to preserve competition between multiple exam boards, but to shift responsibility for content to national syllabuses accredited by Ofqual, to prevent any risk of a "race to the bottom".

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Teachers and school leaders need a definitive statement about what is going to happen. At the moment there is complete confusion."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said that it was discussing qualification reform with Ofqual. She added that the Department was committed to ensuring that changes could be "implemented effectively by schools" and that it would set out proposals soon.


Recommendations made by the Education Select Committee in its report on exams:

Competing exam boards should be retained, but Ofqual-approved national syllabuses should be introduced to prevent a "race to the bottom" on content.

Debate is needed on the comparability of standards between the UK's four nations.

The government should reduce the "dominant influence" of the five A*-C GCSE league table measure.

The whole university sector, schools, colleges, learned bodies and employers should be consulted on A-level reforms.

Ofqual should consider restricting exclusive endorsement deals between exam boards and textbook publishers.

Ofqual should set up national subject committees in large-entry GCSE and A-level subjects to develop syllabuses and to monitor question papers and marking schemes.

Original headline: `Branded for life': plans for national rankings trigger fears for pupils

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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