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GCSE reforms: international comparisons to be used to help set standards

England’s exam regulator will look to the standards expected by some of the world’s highest performing school systems in the next stage of radical GCSE reforms.

South Korea, Finland and Massachusetts are among the overseas territories that Ofqual is likely to reference later this year when working out exactly how hard the new exams should be and where pass grades should be set.

The watchdog will announce tomorrow the decisions it has reached so far over the structure for the new qualifications, which will start to come into schools from 2015.

It is expected to confirm that lettered grades will be replaced with a numerical grading system, although this could be 1-9, with grade 1 the lowest, rather than the 1-8 suggested in June’s official consultation.

The study of international standards, which will form part of the next phase of Ofqual's work, is now underway, with plans to look at Alberta and Ontario in Canada, China,  Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand, Scotland, Hungary and the Netherlands.    

The results will feed into to a second consultation - expected before Christmas - that will look at how standards should be set in the first years of the reformed GCSEs.

Michael Gove, education secretary, has said he wants the qualifications to be “explicitly harder”. “There must be an increase in demand to reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions,” he told Ofqual in February.

But if the international comparison work the watchdog has already carried out on A levels is anything to go by, it may not come up with quite the conclusions the education secretary was hoping for.

Mr Gove has said that exams in England are “below par when compared internationally”. But in October 2011, Ofqual reported that its international comparative work showed that A levels “stood up pretty well” compared with equivalent qualifications in other high-performing countries.

This week Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT,  voiced doubts that GCSEs could be easily “bench-marked” to overseas systems.

“I don’t think it is quite as simple as that,” he told TES. “You might be looking at apples and oranges. I think you could over-use this international bench-marking to try and ratchet up the pass mark.”

Professor Robert Coe, from Durham University’s school of education, has also warned that comparing different exam systems around the world could be of limited use.

“That kind of thing is very difficult to get much that is sensible out of,” he has said. “It comes down to what you mean by standards anyway.

“There is a lot of judgment involved and a lot of the context is quite hard to take account of.”

Tomorrow’s announcement is also expected to confirm the move to a linear rather than modular GCSE system, largely assessed through summer exams with a big reduction in coursework.

The first new GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths are due to be ready for first teaching in schools from 2015. New GCSEs in other subjects have been delayed until at least 2016 after Ofqual warned the previous 2015 timetable was unfeasible.

Mr Gove had originally wanted GCSE replacements to be taught even earlier, from 2014.  

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