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'Should our exam system be more like Hogwarts?'

The reformed linear GCSEs and A levels have eradicated coursework stress - but more could be improved, says Andrew Otty

harry potter exams GCSE resit college FE english

The reformed linear GCSEs and A levels have eradicated coursework stress - but more could be improved, says Andrew Otty

In the past, when the topic of exam reform has come up in conversation, I’ve rolled out a glib line about wishing final assessments were more like the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where nobody has a clue what the tests will involve. Having spent year after year as an English teacher drilling set formulas and approaches for the different patterns of pedantic hoop-jumping required in exam questions, I would relish the challenge of honing learners’ skills and building their confidence to tackle something completely unseen and unknown.

I’ve used that Triwizard line less frequently in the last year or two, because things have vastly improved anyway thanks to the GCSE 9-1 reforms. I know that as a teacher of English, the subject that has been most-positively transformed, my gratitude could overspill into bias, but it does feel as though the post-reform landscape is receiving an unfairly poor press. There’s a perception that the shift from centre-assessment to exams has created additional stress for students. However, the reforms have done much to reduce the truly unnecessary and cruel exam stress that was inflicted previously by schools that used early-entry and multiple-entry in their desperate and scattergun attempts to improve attainment.

At one school where I taught, students were simultaneously entered into three separate exam boards for maths; a cynical game ended by recent reform. That school also practised early entry, and had a crack in November too, so the majority took those exams, plus English, three times. Such strategies rendered the whole of key stage 4 nothing but a series of futile exam sittings following from a de-prioritised and consequently barren key-stage-3 experience that did nothing to prepare them. Anyone with a care for young people’s mental health knows we need to keep our foot on the accelerator, moving as far away from those mindless practices as we can.

Bell-curve of national grade distribution

As for the fallacy that centre-assessment such as coursework is less stressful than exams, try standing in the shoes of a student on the August results day: You enjoyed your GCSE course and worked hard, independently, on your assessments. You did everything you were taught to do, and more. But you didn’t get the result you wanted because the bell-curve of the national grade distribution favoured students in other schools who were directed to spend their time learning their teacher’s model essays by heart, ready to regurgitate, or even favoured those whose teachers simply wrote the assessments for them. That heady mix of confusion and injustice is more stressful than any exam and the long-term effects more damaging.

The reforms are very welcome, levelling the playing field for teachers working in challenging contexts and stripping away some of the lazy entitlement from those with a head start, but that latter group of educators have more time and energy for tubthumping. It’s understandable why negative misconceptions abound when you consider that most of those leading the organisations that represent teachers are either grammar-school alumni or former heads of socially-selective schools whose concept of a disadvantaged community is somewhere that lies outside of the Ocado delivery radius.

While reform has begun to improve the educational experience for most, the wealthy can continue to consolidate their privilege and short change their children by claiming top grades in easier qualifications. Private schools such as Eton do not have to enter the new GCSEs and are continuing to enter students into iGCSEs instead.

Equality of opportunity

I believe firmly in equality of opportunity for young people. Two-tier systems, especially those tiered on an economic basis, only serve to suppress social mobility, so I was glad to see the Labour party holding the government to account. “We cannot have an education system with different rules for the privileged few,” stated Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary. Yet a few weeks ago, Rayner was advocating just such an inequitable system. At the Association of Colleges national conference in November, she pledged to scrap the post-16 GCSE resit policy and bump the disproportionately-disadvantaged students whose attainment was lower at key-stage 4 onto an easier qualification. All students are equal, but FE students are just a little bit less equal.

The real problem with my Triwizard Tournament quip is that it is easily shot down by anyone vaguely familiar with the Goblet of Fire plot. Harry cheats like hell throughout! I kicked myself when this was pointed out to me by a student, because I’d been oddly blind to it.

I wonder if this is a cultural issue for teachers; when we’re rooting for our hero to overcome, all our attention is on the ends and not the means. It’s okay for Harry to bend the rules a little to win a high-stakes competition he didn’t choose to enter. When some educators believe Ofsted and the Department for Education to be worse villains than Voldemort, you can see how the same thinking might be applied.

So maybe the reformed landscape, with the temptations of centre assessment removed, already beats Hogwarts. There is further to go though, for example by removing tiered exams that are used prejudicially against poorer students. But to keep moving towards equality of opportunity we will need to speak just as openly and loudly about what has been achieved already as about what still needs to change.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine


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