'Could this please be the last bit of radical reform to qualifications – just for a decade or so?'

4th April 2014 at 12:21

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, writes: 

Not that I'm after brownie points or anything, but I’m writing this having just taught my Year 11 GCSE English group their last lesson before Easter.

It was, I fear, another not-entirely-sparkling lesson on (inevitably) the novel Of Mice and Men. The class stared at me through inert eyes and granted me occasional bovine grunts of polite comprehension.

This is certainly feeling like the most fractious fag-end of a term I can remember. The students are tired. The staff are tired. I’m tired. So maybe I’m not in the most upbeat frame of mind to dust off the bunting for yet another announcement of ‘radical reform’.

Frankly, I'd have made do with a bottle of cheap wine and a slice of American Hot pizza.

On the other hand, I suppose that if we're going to restore the discredited brand of GCSE (though don't get me started on who discredited it in the first place), then we're going to need a different form of assessment.

And we need to break the madcap tyranny of the grade C "pass".

And if only to shut up those politicians who keep berating us that our students don't reach the proverbial gnat’s crotchet of their equivalents in Singapore or Shanghai, then let’s encourage someone at Ofqual to try to benchmark our qualifications against those far-flung places.

So I find myself reading Ofqual’s proposals for GCSE reform and seeing more sense in them than the media wind-tunnel had led me to expect.

In fact, I find myself welcoming much of what they propose. All except two implications.

First, I'd still want to argue for a ‘100 per cent system’ which aims to enable every student to gain a worthwhile certificate after 16 years of compulsory education. Call me old-fashioned or Blob-like, but I like the idea of an assessment regime which rewards success rather than demarcates failure.

In 30 years I’ve never heard a results day conversation in which a student boasts that he got a grade E and therefore beat his friend who got grade F. Anything below a C is publicly deemed no good, and it’s a shame that this new reform is already focusing on where the ‘pass/fail’ threshold may be drawn.

My other beef is the reporting of the new grade 9 as being there for the brightest and best "in grammar schools".

Excuse me?

In our proudly comprehensive school we are very happy that our most academically gifted students will be able to demonstrate exceptional achievement. But we'll be kicking up an almighty fuss when it’s used to suggest that schools that select their students by ability are better than ours. We'll be resisting any hint of the qualification being deployed as a stalking-horse for a selective system and the likely snobbiness of schools being ranked by their top grades only.

Meanwhile, could we all have a holiday please? And once this reform has been implemented could we have a bit of peace?

Because I think that my GCSE class deserves teachers who can develop their skills and knowledge around a qualification and grading system that are tried, tested, publicly trusted and not endlessly tinkered with.

This government’s first and only education white paper was portentously called The Importance of Teaching. Could this please be the last bit of radical reform to qualifications – just for a decade or so – so that we can do just that: focus on the importance of teaching?


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