Gove presses on with GCSE reform

15th February 2013 at 00:00
`Listening' minister fails to take account of official consultation

The government is pushing ahead on key elements of its GCSE reforms despite being told that they have very limited backing and are widely opposed in education, TES can reveal.

Last week, Michael Gove sought to portray himself as a listening education secretary as he announced he was abandoning his plan for an exam board franchising system. The move, predicted by TES last month, won him widespread praise for heeding warnings from regulator Ofqual and other experts.

But despite the dropping of the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) title, the main elements of Mr Gove's GCSE reform package remain in place, even though the government's official consultation shows that they have little support.

Last September, the Department for Education asked for views on whether the requirements for a C-grade GCSE "pass" should become tougher, whether there should be a new grading structure and whether exam boards should pay more attention to standards in "high-performing jurisdictions".

A government document published last week shows that this package of measures was backed by less than a quarter of the 5,496 responses to the consultation, with "nearly half" actively opposed to it. But Mr Gove is implementing the changes anyway.

"One would hope that any education secretary would listen to the experts out there in the field," said Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "At the moment the secretary of state is not always listening, or taking notice of and acting upon a great deal of sound advice coming from the profession."

The news came as concern grew about the timetable being set for reform, with new GCSEs and A levels to be introduced simultaneously from September 2015, only a year after schools start teaching a new national curriculum.

One exam board insider told TES that getting the reformed GCSEs ready in time would be "tough". Ofqual has described the timetable as "challenging" and warned it may have to delay the changes; while the NUT argues that it "could lead to a collapse of the system". Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said "the pace of change in exams is still too high".

Both heads' unions think GCSE reform should be the priority. Mr Trobe called for it to be delayed until 2016, with new A levels postponed for first teaching in 2018. He said the current timetable is "too rushed" because it would give schools the material they need to prepare for the new exams only a year in advance of its being taught.

The DfE consultation found that 55 per cent of those who responded thought schools should be given more than 18 months' preparation time, while another 23 per cent said they should be given between a year and 18 months to prepare.

There are also fears of confusion over the grades for the new exams. It is planned that reformed GCSEs with a new grading structure will be introduced in English language, English literature, maths, history, geography, computer science and other sciences from 2015, with further subjects following a year later.

But this would leave two different GCSE grading systems running in parallel for at least a year. Mr Trobe warned that the problems could continue even after all the new GCSEs have been introduced. "It is a recipe for confusion," he said. "A whole multitude of employers will need educating in what the new grading system will mean and what the equivalences with older grades will be."

Exam board insiders are hoping that the changes will mean a relatively simple addition of a new A** grade, or giving pupils the opportunity of gaining an A* with distinction or merit.

But Mr Gove is clear that grade C or equivalent must also be tougher - a "step change" in expectations of pupils.

The consultation response showed substantial opposition to the education secretary's plan to end GCSE tiering, and for 100 per cent external assessment.

But despite this - and the unprecedented levels of concern about EBCs from Ofqual, unions, employers, exam boards and prominent Conservative education figures - Mr Gove insisted last week that many of his proposals had been "welcomed".

The one element he admitted had been a "bridge too far" - the plan to award exam boards exclusive franchises for single subjects - was actually the most popular one, according to a YouGov poll last year, which found that 82 per cent of the public supported the change.


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