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'It is unacceptable that Ofqual appears unable to ensure that exams are set at the correct level'

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Rigour, that weasel word so beloved of the last government, is biting back with a vengeance.

The previous education secretary, Michael Gove, was very fond of it and demanded that GCSEs be reformed to make them more rigorous.

This view was enthusiastically supported by his successor, Nicky Morgan, who promised to drive up standards and restore faith in our qualifications with “a focus on what might be considered fairly traditional things – discipline, standards, rigour”.

For both the politicians, it was undoubtedly the second of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of rigour – severity or strictness – that was the one to be desired.

The exam boards duly obliged. Or so we thought.

However, exams watchdog Ofqual last week revealed that it was asking all exam boards offering the new GCSEs in mathematics to draw up a new set of sample papers. In a scenario straight out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it seems that three of the boards had set papers that were too tough and the fourth had produced a paper that was too easy.

If that wasn’t bad enough, this week we have found that the problems probably don’t stop there. The removal of practicals from A-level and GCSE science exams has already provided plenty of controversy but now the qualifications are facing even more turmoil. Extra checks will have to be carried out here too, Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey has conceded.

“We are looking ahead already to the new GCSEs in science and the individual sciences – where incidentally there is quite a lot of maths – and considering the sort of scrutinies that we will want to run alongside our usual processes,” she says.

It would seem that the exams watchdog is belatedly having to pay heed to a different definition of rigour – the quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

For schools this is a disaster. Where they need certainty and confidence they instead have doubt and fear. It is unacceptable that Ofqual appears unable to ensure that exams are set at the correct level; after all, that’s its job. It is extremely worrying that it approved the maths papers set by three out of four boards seemingly unaware that they were too difficult; the problem came to light only after concerns were raised – and ministerial “fury” unleashed – because one paper was too easy.

Ofqual could have saved itself much trouble, cash and embarrassment if, as Sue Pope, chair of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics general council points out, it had listened to the teachers who were telling it that the papers were not comparable.

The problems amount to a big headache for already hard-pressed and beleaguered teachers. In maths they could have as little as three school weeks to prepare before they have to start teaching the new GCSEs; in science, there are real concerns for schools wanting to start teaching the new GCSEs over three years from September.

There is a third meaning of rigour: add an “s” on the end and, hey presto, what you get is “harsh and demanding conditions”. Sadly, that’s the one that schools have ended up with. 

To read more, get the 29 May edition of TES on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 



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