They say a change is as good as a rest. But the raft of exam reforms teachers and students have had to cope with over the past few years puts that idiom to the test, and then some.
The final phase of the revamp of GCSEs and A levels devised by Michael Gove is well underway. Meanwhile, such is the nature of politics and the tenure of education secretaries that the architect of the reforms is on his third job since then and education is on his third successor. Policies, once set in motion, stagger on like zombies long after the soul has departed.
Gove is now busy with his clean-air strategy at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, having, of course, successfully delivered his hot-air strategy on Brexit.
Back in 2013, his revamped, more rigorous GCSEs were trumpeted as being “more demanding, more fulfilling and more stretching” to give “young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race”. He removed coursework, bumped up the amount of content to be covered and brought back cliff-edge examination. And A levels were decoupled from AS levels.
So far, the jury is out. In a poll by Tes and the Association of School and College Leaders, about half of headteachers said the reforms had “made no difference” to pupils’ understanding at GCSE and A level.
And as for raising standards, last year’s ridiculously low pass mark in maths made a mockery of the government’s claim that it was making GCSEs the “gold standard”. How can a qualification be gold standard if a “pass” (grade 4) can be achieved with just 18 per cent of the overall marks in the higher paper?
'Crazily low' boundaries
To be fair, the government has found itself trying to square an impossible circle. It wanted to increase rigour, but didn’t want to unfairly disadvantage the cohort of pupils taking GCSEs that are harder than those sat by their predecessors, so it has used comparable outcomes to ensure roughly the same spread of grades as in previous years. The result, in the words of Corinne Angier, honorary secretary for the Association of Teachers of Maths, is “crazily low” grade boundaries.
The good news for maths is that the situation does not need to continue indefinitely. Teaching at primary level has become stronger in recent years, with the adoption of the mastery approach, so children coming through to secondary will be more advanced than their predecessors. The bad news is that we will struggle to get sufficient high-quality maths teachers into secondaries to continue this improvement. Rough calculations suggest that we’ll need to recruit some 40 per cent of all maths graduates to satisfy our future needs at secondary.
The big question about a “gold standard”, however, is what is it for? Is it for government to brag about how rigorous it is, should it be a trajectory to further study or should it be useful to young people in everyday life?
A former education secretary thinks he has the answer. Lord Baker would like to see the GCSE split into two: core maths and further maths. He believes not enough time is spent equipping young people with the skills they will need in the real world, such as calculating loans, debts and interest rates. “I was the minister who introduced GCSEs and I never thought they would be set in stone for ever,” he said recently. “It is now time for a change”.
It is a variation on a recurring idea. The maths linked-pair pilot project ran from 2010-16. It involved “nesting” the old GCSE within two linked GCSEs – “methods of maths” and “applications of maths” – neither of which stood alone. Schools liked the idea, but it was commonly seen as more suitable for stretching higher-attaining students.
Lord Baker may well have a point, but for teachers and school leaders dealing with problems stemming from the current reforms, they are words that will send a shiver down their spines. There’s only one thing worse than change and that’s more change.