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'Don't accuse private school heads of avoiding the fight for good public examinations'

It is wrong to claim that the heads of independent schools are focusing on alternative qualifications rather than on improving GCSEs and A levels, writes the HMC's general secretary

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It is wrong to claim that the heads of independent schools are focusing on alternative qualifications rather than on improving GCSEs and A levels, writes the HMC's general secretary

John Dunford's opinion pieces for Tes are always widely noted, and so it is surprising that his most recent article, “Independent schools are shamelessly playing the system when it comes to exam grades”, seems markedly off the pace. 

However, because John raises a number of important points, it is worth examining his arguments, one at a time.

1. “Education in England needs principled leadership as much from independent school heads as from their state school counterparts [and both] should be fighting within the system for good examinations”

True. But, says John, the former have, instead, backed “into a privileged independent corner”.  False. He is correct in saying that independent schools can go their own way and ignore “the stupidest of the regulations placed on state schools” but he is wrong to claim that they have not made common cause with their state sector colleagues over fairness in public examinations.

Momentum has been building steadily since 2012. In that year the Association of School and College Leaders and NAHT heads' union sought a judicial review over GCSE results – with the judge handing down a verdict that the grades awarded were lawful but unfair. At the same time HMC was beginning a detailed, public critique of structural problems with exam marking and regulation, just as Ofqual, still a relatively new official regulator, was getting to grips with the least rigorous and most fundamentally flawed aspects of the system it had inherited from the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) two years earlier. 

HMC was fortunate in being able to devote a good deal of time to sifting through the evidence, with the result that our proposals have had significant influence over some of Ofqual's work programmes: most fundamentally, quality of marking, but also harsh marking in certain subjects, inter-subject and inter-board compatibility, more transparent reporting of mark reviews and regrades, and an overhaul of the completely inadequate and unfair enquiries about results and appeals system bequeathed to it by QCDA. 

In 2015, HMC and NAHT started to work in tandem on some of the most difficult remaining problems Ofqual faces and, under the energetic new leadership at ASCL provided by Geoff Barton, it, too, has recently come alongside HMC to help with this work.

During the same period, much light has been shed on the nature of the problems by Ofqual’s sustained commitment to research and development, first under Dame Glenys Stacey and now under Sally Collier.  The problems are difficult or they would already have been solved.  However, what should most cheer John is the fact that the patient, principled and collective leadership of the heads' associations has led to the placing of the individual candidate – and whether he or she passes safely through the exam system – at the core of the debate about fairness in summative assessment.

2. Examiner “misconduct was more like to occur in the Pre-U than in, say, A level or GCSE”

False. The exam boards, Ofqual and senior examiners are quite as concerned to ensure probity in small-entry qualifications as at both A level and GCSE taken primarily by candidates in state schools. It is the size of the entry and the relative scarcity of senior examiners with advanced assessment skills in minority subjects that is the point of risk across all qualifications.

3Pre-Us are "old-fashioned linear examinations [and] IGCSE is another old-fashioned Cambridge” qualification

False. By 2019 all candidates in England will be sitting Michael Gove's new-fashioned examinations. John may believe these are regressive in design, but that is a different argument.

4. “Too few independent school heads work closely with their maintained-school peers”

False.  The overall volume of partnership activity between independent schools and state schools rises steadily each year. Certainly, some state school heads continue to have nothing to do with independent schools but 100 per cent of HMC members are actively involved in partnerships with those other state schools where joint working is welcomed, and mutual benefit has been identified.

5. “Now that GCSE and A levels have been made harder post-Gove, the Pre-U and IGCSE have become easier in comparison”  

Unlikely… but not definitively known. Which takes us back to argument one – and here John is definitely on to something. 

Over the four years 2013-2016, an additional 200,000 candidates were entered for IGCSEs. Independent schools had initially adopted these qualifications because they appeared to them significantly more difficult at the top end of the grade scale than modular GCSEs and were thus a better preparation for high attainment at A level. At the same time, the enormous surge of state school candidates (subsequently reversed by government league table rules put in place in 2017) was driven by school networks – most notably members of the PiXL Club – that had come to believe that it was easier for their candidates to secure a grade C in IGCSE, compared with GCSE.

Could both propositions be true?  Possibly. But the best way to find out would be for the University of Cambridge to follow the example of Ofqual by publishing the results of its working methods for pegging standards between the GCSEs and IGCSEs it provides. 

A Cambridge spokesman said in 2013: “We know that Cambridge IGCSE and GCSE are of the same standard."  The university may know but, four years on, it still hasn't explained to the rest of us precisely how it knows.

William Richardson has been general secretary of HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) since 2011

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