‘We’re Mystic Meg’, warn heads in the dark over exams

16th October 2015 at 00:00
Majority of new qualifications have not yet been approved

Just three of 156 new GCSEs, AS- and A-levels that schools will be expected to teach from next year have had any official approval from exams regulator Ofqual, it has emerged.

Headteachers say they needed to see approved specifications and sample assessment materials a full year before teaching begins in September 2016. They warn that the delay in preparing for the biggest year of exam reform for decades is wasting scarce public funds and forcing them to act like “Mystic Meg” when explaining the changes to pupils and parents.

The slow progress is despite Ofqual pledging last December that new specifications for all the exams to be taught from 2016 would be available in “autumn 2015”. Exam boards have published draft versions, but Ofqual rejected most of them.

‘Slower than hoped’

This week, Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey admitted: “It is fair to say that accreditation of this year’s exam board specifications has been slower than we had hoped.” She acknowledged that the list of approved qualifications “makes for scant reading”.

The three qualifications with some accreditation – Latin GCSE, and music A- and AS-levels – each have approved specifications from only one out of a potential four exam boards. That leaves 153 specifications across 21 subjects without accreditation.

Schools want a full year’s preparation so they can choose exam boards, run sixth-form open days (a process normally finished by Christmas) and begin organising resources and schemes of work. But the delays mean the timetable has been missed for the vast majority of new qualifications.

“It’s not only frustrating but worrying [for schools] when specifications aren’t ready when you’d like them to be,” Ms Stacey said. “This is probably cold comfort but I’m not unaware of that. I’ve got about half my organisation working on accreditation.”

Her comments came in response to criticism from a deputy headteacher at an independent school, who said that the pace of change in exams was “worrying”.

Speaking to Ms Stacey at an exam reform conference in London, the deputy, who asked not to be named, said: “Three weeks ago, I had to stand up in front of Year 11 and present their A-level choices for next year when I had hardly any accredited specifications, so the book where we would normally give them details of the course is pretty much a set of blank pages.

“We are basically Mystic Meg…trying to give answers to students and parents when we don’t even know ourselves.”

‘Extraordinary waste’

Robin Bevan, headteacher of Southend High School for Boys in Essex, told TES the delay in receiving accredited specifications had led to “an extraordinary waste of public resource”.

“The specifications are coming out so late that there are no dedicated textbooks for any of these courses,” Dr Bevan said. “Every school will have to develop its own resources in-house, or crossmatch what’s in the resources they’ve got and what’s in the new specifications. That’s being replicated everywhere, and this is to me the biggest frustration. Teachers should be spending their time on other things.”

Ms Stacey said the pace of exam reform set by the government had been “eye-watering”, but she hoped that more qualifications would be accredited “by the time Santa Claus comes down the chimney”. She warned, however, that it would not be possible to accelerate the process much further without jeopardising existing GCSE and A-level qualifications. “There are, put bluntly, not a sufficient number of assessment experts in the country to manage [a] faster pace without significant risk to current qualifications.”

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there was a risk of Year 11 students who had to make A-level subject choices with little knowledge of the specifications changing their minds once more details became available. This would cause further problems for schools, he warned.

An Ofqual spokeswoman said the watchdog had acted in accordance with its commitment, made in response to the government’s Workload Challenge, to publish requirements for new qualifications at least a year in advance of first teaching.

It had also met its pledge to make decisions about exam boards’ submissions by 1 October 2015, she said, although the vast majority of these submissions were rejected.

New exams being taught from 2016

GCSEs

Art and design

Biology

Chemistry

Citizenship studies

Classical Greek

Combined science

Computer science

Dance

Drama

Food preparation and nutrition

French

Geography

German

History

Latin

Music

PE

Physics

Religious studies

Spanish

AS- and A-levels

Classical Greek

Dance

Drama and theatre

French

Geography

German

Latin

Music

PE

Religious studies

Spanish

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