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It’s merely the end of the beginning for exam reform

Has common sense been packed along with the pot plant in the box Glenys Stacey is planning to take with her to the Ministry of Justice next month?

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“To improve is to change; so to be perfect is to have changed often.” It’s hard not to believe that Winston Churchill’s words aren’t nailed over the door at the Department for Education as we witness the unrelenting waves of reforms emanating from Sanctuary Buildings.

Perfection is, of course, subjective and comes at a high cost (usually someone else’s). Change is welcome when objective, not ideological, and when it is executed carefully. Unfortunately, that’s not what we get in education, which means constant turmoil for everyone involved.

In primary, serious doubts are being raised over the baseline assessments introduced in September. The tests on four- and five-year-olds as they enter Reception class are said to be damaging children, limiting teachers and creating extra work (see pages 10-11 in this week's TES​ magazine). And a new writing assessment is expected to increase workload, with headteachers predicting an extra two days’ work for every Year 6 teacher.

Getting specific about exams

At secondary, teachers, parents and pupils are dealing with the biggest changes to exams in a generation, as the government pursues its “rigour” offensive by toughening up GCSEs, AS and A levels.

Students began studying the new GCSEs in maths and English in September 2015. A further 20 GCSE subjects are due to be phased in from this September. Unfortunately for ministers – and even more unfortunately for teachers and pupils – it appears that regulator Ofqual has so far approved only 52 of the 156 new specifications.

This leaves schools and teachers with less than two terms to get ready for teaching some very high-stakes exams (for pupils and for schools) – a ludicrous position to be in. No one appears to have learned from last year’s debacle when the specifications for maths were received at the end of the summer term, leaving only two weeks’ preparation time. This year, teachers preparing Year 9 pupils are having to “guess” at the content and standards that they will have to meet, according to ATL general secretary Mary Bousted. That is hugely unfair.

It’s hard not to feel a touch of sympathy for Ofqual: the regulator has ended up in an unenviable position. Reforms have been introduced at what its chief executive, Glenys Stacey, has described as an “eye-watering” pace. This has put huge pressure on both the exam boards and the regulator to deliver. And the semi-public criticism from ministers that the boards were in a race to the bottom has, unsurprisingly, made Ofqual extremely cautious in approving specifications.

'Complete madness'

But any sympathy for Ofqual goes out of the window with its latest move (see pages 6-7). When it should be ensuring the timely delivery of a complicated raft of exam reform, it is instead looking at a major review of grading in an attempt to improve comparability across subjects.

That is complete madness. When everyone is still struggling to get their heads around exam reform and grades going from alphabetical to numerical, why on earth would anyone contemplate even more changes? 

Enough is enough. Can we please have no more changes until the current ones have bedded in?

Education is not about being absolutely perfect. It is about teachers doing the best that they can for their students. This unrelenting parade of changes is only getting in the way of that. Surely, this isn’t what even Churchill had in mind.

What everyone forgets are the preceding words in his famous quote: “There is nothing wrong in change, if it is in the right direction.” And there, of course, lies the rub.


This is an article from the 12 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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