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Entering borderline pupils early for modular GCSEs was like a Shakespearean farce - but less funny

"The raven himself is a horse," was one student's response to a question in this summer's GCSE English literature controlled assessment on Macbeth, attempting to recall Lady Macbeth's invocations of hellish spirits beginning, "The raven himself is hoarse". The candidate was on the grade-F borderline, taking an English literature GCSE unit after one year of study.

Prior to this summer, candidates would have had to sit all their GCSE units in this subject at the same time, usually after two years of study. This change in assessment structure, which was introduced for all new GCSEs starting in 2009, has been called modularisation. The Government, scarcely two years later, has now determined that from 2011, no exam boards will be allowed to offer modular assessments at GCSE.

Once the dust has settled from the summer exam season, we will see how many schools embraced the opportunities for early entry that the new modular GCSEs offered. Sitting in the grade-awarding meetings that have been held over the past two years, however, the absurdity of the situation has become clear to me. In these meetings, candidates have been judged against the full GCSE standard, despite many of them having studied the GCSE for little more than a few months.

One examiner commented that entering candidates who were on the FG borderline for an examination involving English literature after one year of study of the syllabus was an act of cruelty. Having drawn the grade-G boundary above candidates with no more than a handful of marks, there are many students who will have received official notifications of failure.

What possible benefit could accrue from the decision to enter a grade-F candidate early for an examination? The literature on self-esteem would tell us that the student would be unlikely to be motivated by this failure or spurred on by initial defeat to later success. Perhaps the pupil in question was entered as a last hope of gaining a qualification before they began a career of truancy. We'll never know.

What we do know is that most candidates entered early for a two-year syllabus have received lower unit grades than we would have expected them to after two years. This has resulted in an increase in retakes to ensure that after two years students receive the subject grades they deserve. Valuable teaching time has been sacrificed.

So who should take responsibility for the failures in the full-scale modularisation that was launched not two years ago?

The teachers' motivations for entering candidates early are diverse and hard to criticise. If the grade-F candidate was on the verge of perpetual truancy, a last-ditch attempt to secure a qualification for that child would be blameless. If the school down the road had "gone modular", it would also have taken a brave head of department to resist the impulse to follow suit. Many may now regret the switch they made, having seen the impact on their teaching and learning.

Are there heads of departments pursuing league-table points regardless of the pedagogical cost? Undoubtedly there are. A smart head, however, would soon realise that the financial and resource implications of putting on effective resit classes means that it is far better to get the right result the first time. Where students do not do themselves justice in an exam, limited retakes are useful and fair. If assessments are reliable, the gains offered by multiple resits are minimal and outweighed by the costs.

The responsibility must therefore lie with the regulator or the exam boards. The decision to modularise all GCSE assessments was taken by the awarding bodies on the grounds of providing customer choice. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with choice, but we need to ensure that teachers are able to make a well-informed choice.

Teachers choosing modular syllabuses need to be assured that the syllabus they opt for presents material in a pedagogically sound order, and that the assessments taken at the end of each unit are reliable assessments of that syllabus. GCSEs in maths and A-levels both largely fulfil that remit. When done well, modular structures can reduce the stress involved in taking a large number of exams at the end of a course without impacting on the efficacy of learning.

The Government, however, clearly wasn't convinced that all the issues with modular assessment had been thought through and, listening to a tale whereby a raven had become a horse, neither was I. For all the initial issues, however, I worry that the danger with direct Government intervention in a market is that it reduces the incentive for research and development. Exam boards will think carefully about investing money in the next generation of on-screen tests if there is a danger the Government will intervene on the basis of limited evidence. Reluctance to modernise will soon leave us with an assessment system that is an anachronism.

What would have happened if the Government hadn't intervened? Teachers would soon switch to assessments that make more pedagogical sense, where the assessment structure offers the support and progression opportunities that are right for their pupils. A variety of approaches suitable for different contexts would have arisen.

The impulse to interfere in assessment and education seems very hard for governments to resist. Intervention, however, should be backed by evidence, otherwise schools and colleges are presented with constant flux. Let's hope there is still some room to discuss the evidence surrounding modular assessment. At least if spelling and grammar were assessed at some earlier point, we could at least hope for "the raven itself", as a horse.

Dr Chris Wheadon is head of scientific research and development at AQA's Centre for Education Research and Policy.

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