Exams overhaul is putting teaching and learning at risk, heads' leader warns

30th June 2016 at 14:03
Russell Hobby
NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby also says high-stakes accountability is placing too much pressure on the exams system

A major overhaul of England’s exam system that was designed to raise standards risks holding back teaching and learning, a headteachers’ leader has warned.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said today that the introduction of tough new GCSEs, which will be graded from 9 to 1, were distracting schools from improving the quality of education.

Impossible expectations

He added that the exams system could not withstand the pressures and expectations that were being placed on it in an era of high-stakes accountability.

"If my calculations are correct, there’s not a single cohort of students at secondary school today which doesn’t face some sort of different exam system," he said. "It’s very hard to maintain high-quality teaching and learning in the face of that.

"Increasing amounts of time are being spent on understanding the new exam system that could be spent on CPD. The average Inset day is about telling teachers what’s changed since last term, not about improving their practice."

Mr Hobby said the introduction of harder exams, which are being phased in over three years with the firsts tests to be taken in 2017, "won’t raise standards by itself".

"The quality of teaching and learning is what counts, and we’re distracting from real investment in that,” he added.

TES reported this month that maths experts were concerned that the introduction of a tough new maths GCSE could deter pupils from continuing with the subject. 

During a speech at a Westminster Education Forum event in London today, Mr Hobby also said England’s high-stakes accountability system was based on an untenable assumption that pupils’ exam marks could be seen as absolutely correct.

No right answer

In many cases, he said, there was no such thing as a single correct mark because two equally well-trained examiners could make different professional judgements about how many marks to award to a written exam answer.

"Accountability to schools and teachers assumes there’s a right and wrong answer," he said, adding that pupils’ and teachers’ careers could be "made and broken" on the basis of results.

"It seems we built our education system on a series of assumptions it can’t stand…The weight of the accountability system is crushing it."

Ofqual has announced plans to reform the exam appeals system by making it harder to successfully challenge a student’s grade. Mr Hobby said today that he did not think Ofqual’s approach would build confidence in exams and that it should be replaced with a system of double-blind re-marking when pupils challenged their grades.

"It feels like we’re protecting confidence in the system more than we’re protecting the individual students going through the system," he said. "Our duty to them overrides protecting the system at any cost." 

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