‘It’s a national scandal: the looming exams crisis reveals how ambivalent the government is about teachers and schools’

The repeated failure to approve many of the qualifications that will be taught from this September should be the focus of an emergency inquiry, writes the leader of a major teachers’ union

Mary Bousted

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In its response to the Workload Challenge, the government promised it would give schools at least a year's notice of any planned changes to the curriculum or qualifications. In a very narrow sense, the government has fulfilled this commitment when it comes to qualification reform. Schools have known that changes to GCSEs, AS and A-levels were coming – the problem is, for the majority of new qualifications to be taught in September (now seven months away), schools do not know much more than that.

It is shocking that, as I write on 2 February, more than two-thirds of the qualification specifications teachers will be teaching from September are not ready. Yes, that's right; two-thirds of the qualification specifications submitted to Ofqual have not passed the accreditation process. Even more shocking is that the long list of GCSEs which have not yet been accredited contains the Ebac subjects of geography, biology, chemistry, physics and combined science. All these subjects have had all four exam boards' specifications rejected by Ofqual. Schools can take comfort, however, that classical Greek A-level is up and ready to go.

I called, last year, for an inquiry into the Ofqual accreditation process. Ofqual might think it is doing an excellent job ensuring exam boards are up to the mark in the rigour and exactness of their qualification planning and preparation.  But it is now abundantly obvious that Ofqual has no sense of a school's working year, or the time and effort it takes for teachers to prepare, plan and implement a new qualification syllabus.

The impact of late notification of qualification changes on teachers is huge. If new syllabuses arrive late in the summer term (as they did, last year, for maths), then there are massive implications for curriculum planning. When specifications are so late that no published resources are available, every department in every school has to invent or amalgamate their own hybrid text books or worksheets.

Then there is the effect of delayed information on qualification change for curriculum mapping. Subject leaders have to guess the answer inside Ofqual's head as they have to teach Year 9 students without knowing the content and standards to which they will be subsequently working at GCSE (and beyond).

In any sane, well-organised process, subject leaders would have the new qualification syllabuses in their hot and sticky grasp 18 months before these were due to be taught. This would allow them the time to examine the syllabuses carefully, decide which they were going to adopt, induct their department into the new syllabus and prepare information for parents and pupils so they could make informed subject option choices. None of these basic and essential steps can be taken this year (or could be taken last year) because the information on which to take them was, and is, simply, not available.

Just pause for a moment to consider how important exams are to the individual student, whose life chances are determined, in large measure, by their success or otherwise at GCSE and A-level. Then think how essential exam success is for teachers and school leaders, whose career prospects are dependent, to a large extent, on good exam results.

A government which was serious about teacher workload and teacher professionalism would now, urgently, be conducting its own inquiry into what is happening to delay the qualification accreditation process. It would take very seriously the charge that it had gone headlong into massive curriculum and qualification reform without putting adequate structures in place to manage the change process properly.

It would, surely, question an accreditation process which is so long and complex that it can take over a month for Ofqual to tell an exam board if its qualification specification is accepted for accreditation, or not. Do the maths: some specifications are now on their third submission to Ofqual. Nor does this amount of time include further delays as the exam board revises and reworks a qualification specification when it has been sent back by Ofqual for further work.

Teachers and school leaders are regularly exhorted by government ministers, by chief inspectors, by the great and the not so good, to be more professional, to have higher aspirations for their pupils and to do more and better with less funding. I am going to turn the tables. I want Nick Gibb, the schools minister, to instigate an inquiry into why school leaders and teachers do not have the essential information on which to base a professional and informed response to qualification change. Why is it that subject leaders still do not have the exam specification, and the syllabus, which they require, now, as essential information upon which to build their planning and preparation for September?

And, as an aside, where are the key stage 2 writing exemplifications promised to primary teachers by the end of January?

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She tweets at @maryboustedATL

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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