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Mary Bousted: 'Michael Gove taking us back to timed, linear exams, is perilous to the life chances of young people'

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, writes:
“Armed with the cloak of rigour and righteousness, Michael Gove, with the willing help of Ofqual, has launched a massive, and massively damaging assault on England’s qualification system. Out goes modular courses, controlled assessment and (in most subjects) tiering. In comes timed, linear exams. These changes are proving to be popular with the press as they play to long held prejudices (that coursework is a parental cheats’ charter; qualifications are being dumbed down; grade inflation is rife, etc etc).
Let me be clear: I support rigorous qualifications which equip young people with the skills and abilities they will need for life in the 21st Century. We need, as a nation, to do far better in skills development as the recent OECD survey into adult skills which left the UK languishing at the bottom of the league table demonstrates. So the question that has to be answered by Ofqual is how will the return to timed exams support skills development (which happens when what the knowledge learned by pupils is applied in different contexts).
How, for example, will our young people’s verbal communication and understanding be supported when speaking and listening – a core competence for English – will not form part of the overall English GCSE grade? Ofqual responds to this challenge by arguing that exams can only do so much and that teachers must develop these skills in other ways throughout the curriculum. The problem with this approach, of course, is that in a high stakes system what is valued is what is tested. Over-reliance on timed exams will stifle support for skills development and greatly limit the time devoted to skills use which will be replaced by rote learning and endless revision of what has already been taught.
But there is another problem, and one that goes to the heart of the issue.  The fact is exams are not a perfect indicator of an individual student’s ability in any given subject. Politicians and parents strive for certainty and exams seem to give them that. Exams, it is widely believed, are absolute and accurate measures of individual achievement. The uncomfortable fact, however, is that they are not. An exam grade (or number) is an approximation. It is a contrived, one-off assessment. (This is despite the best efforts of the exam boards and markers who operate complicated procedures and practices into making examination grades as accurate as humanly possible.) But, despite these efforts, there is no getting away from the fact that the grade achieved by an individual student is dependent on decisions made by the exam boards which include: the type of questions posed to the candidates and on which topics and the nature of the mark scheme and the competence and accuracy of exam marking.
Research has also shown that the same student responding to the same examination paper on two different occasions (perhaps just a few days apart) can quite commonly produce work that will lead to the award of quite different marks.  Everyone has good and bad days, but teenagers are especially vulnerable to anxieties, mood swings and regression to immaturity – particularly if they are faced with a timed paper which will define their life chances.
It is for these reasons that different assessment approaches were developed at GCSE, AS and A level. Modular courses give students and teachers the opportunity to check up on their progress and give early indications of difficulties in understanding. Course work allows the undertaking of longer, more in-depth pieces of work which assess deeper understanding and mastery in a subject. Practical work enables the assessment of the application of knowledge and skills in various contexts.
All of these assessment approaches create challenges for the qualifications system. There are issues with 'controlled assessment' and 'coursework' in some subjects. These can, however, be addressed. It is important, rather than to abandon these approaches, to make strenuous efforts to improve them because mixed assessment modes have higher reliability (you are more likely to get a good indication from the grade of the overall competence of the student) and higher validity (you are more likely to get an indication of the competence in the subject, rather than in the capacity of the student to engage in short-term memory revision or where literacy challenges can mask deep understanding in a technical/scientific field).
An over reliance on timed, linear exams also risks exposing the exam boards to further criticism at a public and professional perceptions of exam credibility are at an all time low. The DfE/Ofqual changes will not overcome this without properly addressing the status, rewards, and experience of exam markers. Ofqual’s own data on qualification grade changes reveal that there were more than 31,000 grade changes at GCSE last year and over fourteen thousand at A-level. In both cases Ofqual acknowledge that the rise in grade changes as a result of paper remarks is ‘statistically significant’. As schools become increasingly aware of the increasingly successful challenges to the grades issues by the exam boards the amount of enquiries and remarks will rise, as the confidence in the quality of the exam board’s marking processes will fall.


Teachers are overwhelmingly opposed to the current direction of travel undertaken by Michael Gove with the willing support of Ofqual. Notable amongst the most recently critical voices is Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at Oxford, who said on 15 October this year: “The loss of AS levels will have tragic consequences for widening participation and access to higher education, ….The real danger is students will plough on believing that they may not be capable of applying to a highly selective course…. Meanwhile, less able students may continue with applications to highly selective courses without realising they have little chance of success.’’ 


And Mr Nicholson also warned: “The rapid transition to the new system of A levels – coupled with changes to GCSEs – risked causing in England’s school system, with students at less well-resourced schools hit hardest.”

It seems to me that the English education system is sleepwalking into disaster. We are in danger of doing our young people a grave disservice. We believe that assessment/testing is not about creating hurdles for learners to fall at, but rather is about measuring and confirming progress and achievement. We do not need more pupils to fail.  We need more pupils to achieve and to develop the skills, abilities and knowledge needed for success in a fast changing world. 
The recent OECD survey into adult skills concludes that policy makers need to develop strong links between the world of learning and the world of work. The divide between academic and vocational learning is a false one – they are two sides of the same coin. We neglect skills development and the practical application of knowledge at our peril. What Michael Gove and Ofqual are doing, going back to the future of timed, linear exams, is perilous to the life chances of our young people.”

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