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The new GCSEs are suited to robots - not pupils

We are producing a generation of young adults programmed to complete assessments rather than to learn the subject, argues Yvonne Williams

teaching to the test

We are producing a generation of young adults programmed to complete assessments rather than to learn the subject, argues Yvonne Williams

This Sunday morning I’m rehearsing the return to school routine, and my brain’s a bit bleary at this early hour. So I might be forgiven for misreading Joe Nutt’s headline “English GCSE needs a reboot” as “Why English GCSE needs a robot.” But on further reflection, is my misreading such a misrepresentation of the reality?

The vexed question of the level of demand of GCSE versus IGCSE has been a good headline-hogger. As Bernard Trafford so expertly points out, there is no proof that the new GCSE is harder. The latest study – by FFT Education Datalab – goes no further than saying that: “At the top end of the distribution, perhaps IGCSEs are indeed not graded quite as severely as reformed GCSEs…there looks to be something in it.”

The only thing that studies like this one show is where different awarding bodies under the direction of the exams regulator – or not – draw the line. Such studies are a long way from showing the degree to which performance is tested. We need a far more nuanced debate than that.

Student guinea pigs

As soon as the first "reformed" papers were sat Ofqual should have commissioned a panel of experts to tease out the level of demand at specification level, question paper level, individual questions and the content. These experts would have been chosen from teachers, senior examiners for GCSE and IGCSE, university education departments and specific academic departments relevant to the qualification.

The question of whether international or domestic qualifications are harder could then be investigated by examining scripts which exemplify the different levels of performance, ranked by the experts and then reviewed. I’m sure some of the teacher/journalist/education commentators who have tackled this issue would be more than happy to assist Ofqual. There is already a very long list of subject experts that the regulator could call on.

But is there really the political will for proper evaluation which is “evidence-based”? – to use another hot political eduspeak term, which doesn’t necessarily mean the politician has read all of the research, but he or she will know it exists.

The robotic logic of two Labour politicians (Angela Rayner and Lucy Powell) goes along these lines: the new, reformed GCSE exams are “harder”; they are causing more stress to the state-school students who have to do them; recent cohorts have been “guinea pigs”; so all students, not solely those in state schools, should be compelled to suffer them.

Perhaps it is not entirely fair to name only Rayner and Powell, who seem to be on the side of lessening stress and evening-out perceived imbalances in education. But the best and most appropriate shortcut to this would be for the subject heads of all schools to be allowed to choose from national and international qualifications. In other words, extend the democracy of choice to all.

Rigorous GCSEs

Instead, the majority of students are lumbered with the reformed (re-formed?) qualifications, because at the outset the then education secretary Michael Gove told his party, parliament and the nation as a whole that new GCSEs would be “more rigorous”. Ah, that word “rigorous” ...that undefined and un-questioned good that was to be parroted by politicians and exam boards for the next five years.

One definition (Oxford Dictionary) of "rigour" is “the quality of being extremely thorough and careful”. There is nothing wrong with exam boards, regulators, teachers and pupils being “careful and thorough” in going about the business of learning that can be put to the test. But are care and thoroughness the only hallmarks of good learning – or indeed the best? It could be argued that these qualities provide diligent, compliant citizens; but will these citizens be questioning enough to take their learning further?

If we take the second Oxford Dictionary definition of “rigour” (“severity or strictness”), we certainly have found this to be the case. There is a strict and severe emphasis on answering the question. No one can deny the importance of focus: how many good grades have been lost because our students have veered off the point? But is “rigour” really a route to a compliance culture where the most important thing is to work out what you are being asked to do? Is that really such great training for a future that will require the nation to be more inventive and creative than it has ever been?

Or do we take the third meaning of "rigour": “harsh and demanding conditions”? The much-quoted thirty-odd hours spent in an exam hall could be said to be “harsh and demanding conditions”. The effects of the rigorous exam culture seem to be producing a lot of stress. So, by robotic logic, the exams must be “rigorous”.

Teaching to the test

But have they really made more intellectual demands on students? At the first meeting of fellow heads of English post-2017 results, the comment of one teacher really stands out. They said GCSEs were "very coachable”.

It’s this adjective that bothers me more than any other. What it implies is that the recent suite of qualifications has produced a coaching culture whereby the teacher is instrumental in giving the student a constant series of targeted practice to get over clearly defined hurdles. If Question 2 is targeted at AO2 then the student needs to recall that first before proceeding to respond from their reading of the "unseen" exam passage.

And in this way we are producing a generation of young adults who know more about how the assessment system works than they do about the subject they are studying. This judgement is borne out in the aspects of teaching and learning that bother the inspectorate the most.

Amanda Spielman, most recently imported into Ofsted from Ofqual, should know better than most the ways in which qualifications are constructed. Now that she is on the other side of the fence she is getting to see the effects. Clearly she is deeply concerned about the consequences for the life chances of these students, not to mention their wellbeing and happiness, the draining effects on teachers and the anxiety caused to parents.

So rather than risk producing exams for robots or turning key stage 4 into a programming exercise that turns off teachers and students, let’s cast aside the robotic political assertions. Let’s commission subject panels from a wide spectrum of experts to debate not just the level of demand inherent in current specifications and syllabuses, but also what a really world-class education should look like!

Yvonne Williams is a Head of English and Drama in the south of England

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