'What I'd really welcome is an exam system not based on how many children "fail" to gain certain grades'

1st November 2013 at 11:45
Geoff Barton, head of King Edward IV School, Suffolk, writes:
"So: from the deepest thickets of another Friday in another half-term break, qualification reform hurtles ever onwards. And this time, according to Ofqual’s Glenys Stacey, it’s monumental.
“This is the biggest change in a generation,” she says. “GCSEs have been around for over 25 years but now we are seeing fresh content, a different structure, high-quality assessment coming in.”
And when you look at what’s being proposed, you certainly can’t accuse her of over-hyping the story.
Regular readers will no doubt expect me to serve up my now over-familiar rant about more shameful tinkering with qualifications by politicians and bureaucrats.
But, in fact, I’m broadly in agreement with what Ofqual proposes, though partly in sadness at what’s brought us to this need for radical overhaul.
I welcome, for example, the shift away from tiering. It was never the easiest sell, navigating towards the end of a GCSE English course, and having to inform students that they were on a likely trajectory for a shaky grade C and would therefore be entered for the foundation tier.
Even those of us richly schooled in ways of weaving motivational magic could see the look in our students’ eyes. They knew the sub-text: a cap on their potential was being imposed – not by them, but by us, their teachers.
So no tears here for the dismantling of tiers. Indeed, I welcome it.
I’m also sympathetic to – if also vaguely bemused by – the need for a wholly new grading system. Nine will be the top score and, from all the swirling speculation so far, we can only guess that it’s going to be reserved for students reaching the giddy heights of attainment so far only glimpsed in far-off Finland or some obscure Massachusetts outpost.
Such is our obsession with international benchmarking that we have to hitch ourselves to places which may well bring up and test their children in ways quite unlike our own.
What I would really welcome is an examination system that’s not predicated on how many children ‘fail’ to gain certain grades – the loathsome, divisive, all-encompassing C/D borderline that leaves so many students thinking they are rubbish.
Much more acceptable would be the notion that a grade one indicates a basic grasp of functional literacy and numeracy – an achievement not then sneered at or dismissed. At the end of eleven years of compulsory schooling, we really must develop a national mindset that recognizes young people’s achievement at the full range of levels.
There will be a collective whoop of joy from teachers across subjects at the abolition of controlled assessment, such a break on high quality teaching has it become. It is also so unpoliceable that rumours endlessly surface of schools pushing the system to the limits of acceptable professionalism and, in some cases, well beyond.
In other words, it has not always been the intended sanctuary for objective classroom-based independent study but instead, sometimes, a playpen for dodgy practice.
So, yes, I’m in sympathy with most of the changes.
But there is something saddening that here in the early decades of the twenty-first century more nuanced forms of assessment can’t be employed in our core subjects – that it’s the make-or-break regime of the examination hall and the end-of-course test for all.
Genuine independent study, research, scholarship – these are perhaps the real victims of our bloated accountability system, squeezed out by the need to use students’ performance so clumsily to assess and compare the performance of their schools."


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