John Dunford’s Tes article "Independent schools are shamelessly playing the system when it comes to exam grades” comes across more as philosophically-motivated bombast than as a sequence of carefully-argued or evidenced points. Such vehemence sadly undermines his good intention – that independent schools should be "should be fighting within the system for good examinations...and work[ing] with their maintained school peers for the improvement of the whole system". But then, that is always the problem when emotion overwhelms judgement.
Mr Dunford’s arguments about the privileges of being able to choose IGCSE instead of GCSE hold some water only because the state sector is not necessarily granted access to the best qualifications. I feel very strongly that all students should have access to whatever qualification is deemed most appropriate by their subject heads.
Undoubtedly in today’s global economy, it is of great benefit to students to have an international qualification, especially one that has stood the test of time, unlike the domestic model which has been more prone to political meddling than genuine academic improvement. Students will be able to transfer their achievements to a number of countries without having to undergo any conversion processes when applying for jobs or higher education abroad.
John Dunford’s argument about the IGCSE examinations being "old-fashioned" contains more rhetoric than substance, lacking as it does any definition or exemplification of what the term means. The argument is further weakened by the uncritical assumption that old-fashioned is bad and modern is good. I can think of examples of both the modern and the old-fashioned that I would willingly see cast into Room 101.
Ahead of the game
As a practising English teacher, I appreciate the kind of assessment that allows candidates to hit the ground running – which is what the IGCSE First Language English examination does. I was dismayed to see the bittiness of the early questions for the reformed domestic GCSEs a couple of years ago when I attended the first exam board meetings.
Questions merely requiring a candidate to complete a multiple-choice question and copy down some points from a passage are not really testing all abilities from the start. By contrast, for the first question on the IGCSE Extended Reading Paper, candidates have to read a long passage, select a number of key points, and synthesise these points into a piece of writing in a different format for a specified audience. IGCSE combines skills rather than separating them into micro-strands, as the new GCSE does.
Schools taking 100 per cent examination IGCSEs were well ahead of the game when state schools were still doing controlled assessment (and all the scandal that involved) in 2012. We took the linear closed-text option in English Literature with little fuss or no fuss. The old-fashioned approach – the experience I had as a pupil – and probably the one John Dunford had, too.
The current UK GCSEs are constructed so that “rigour” seems to be derived more from putting candidates under time pressure to answer questions that target different Assessment Objectives in different combinations, rather like a series of frantic pirouettes. The risk is that the 2017 cohort and successors will know more about how the paper is constructed in the name of “examination technique” than about the subject itself.
Certainly, all joy has been squeezed out. The recent study carried out by the English and Media Centre indicates that the reason A-level English take-up has been significantly reduced is a dislike of the new examinations. Who can blame the students if their experience of higher-level English is a route march through a jungle of question types? As a lifelong subject enthusiast, I would far rather teach the syllabus that nurtures a love of the subject and gives teachers the space to explore than a specification full of strands expressed in imperative mood that are narrowed and constricting – even though this may be said to define “rigour”. It’s a type we could do without.
Most worrying of all is the development of so-called "Progress Tests" targeted at Year 7 and up, which are now being manufactured by some exam boards. There is no guarantee that the next government will keep the current specifications. In any case, such narrowing is too soon – there is enough teaching to the test.
Question of trust
There are two more points in Mr Dunford’s unbalanced article that need further examination. There have indeed been two recent instances of teachers who were Pre-U examination-paper setters revealing questions to their students before the examination. But this must not be allowed to tarnish the integrity of the many senior examiners and paper-setters all over the country who work for different boards and teach in different types of school.
The risk is there: it is a question of trust. But the advantage of having teachers set questions is that they are uniquely placed to know what the standard in the classrooms across the nation looks like. Retired teachers also do a fantastic job.
In attacking the private sector, Mr Dunford overlooks the sterling work that the examiners who teach in independent schools do. They are far more likely to get dispensation to mark than their counterparts in multi-academy trusts, for example. In doing so they know that they are contributing to the general educational good of the community. They are certainly not in it for the money. Brighton College goes even further by paying teachers to examine on top of the money from the board, and allowing them space in school to work.
Finally, it is an insulting argument to suggest that schools are all primarily motivated by the supposed lure of easy high grades – if such a thing exists. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am in it for the long haul, not the short-term focus on letter/number grades. I care most about what kind of skills are nurtured and what kind of subject knowledge is imparted and learned and how that combination contributes to the development of the whole person. If that is playing the system then yes, I stand guilty as charged.
Yvonne Williams is head of English in a school in the south of England