The long, agonising wait for a ‘tsunami of exam reform’

12th February 2016 at 00:00
Why are schools still being kept in the dark about new exams they will have to start teaching within months?

In less than two terms’ time, schools will be expected to teach the second and biggest tranche of the government’s new GCSEs and A and AS levels. The changes cover 20 subjects and have been described by one exam board executive as a “tsunami of reform”.

But Ofqual has still to approve two-thirds of the new specifications. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, has described the delay as “shocking”.

The regulator insists that it is “not complacent” about getting the new qualifications ready in time and says it has to be rigorous.

Here TES examines why the process is taking so long and Nigel Matthias, deputy headteacher at Bay House School in Gosport, Hampshire, offers some practical tips for schools.

What’s happening?

The government is phasing in a new set of tougher GCSEs and A and AS levels. But Ofqual had approved just 52 of the 156 new specifications that schools will teach from September as TES went to press.

How many subjects are yet to be approved?

Schools are still waiting for specifications in 9 subjects at AS and A level, along with 15 subjects for GCSE. The delayed GCSEs include critical English Baccalaureate qualifications in the sciences, languages, geography and history.

If the new qualifications are not being taught for months, why does it matter?

Schools might still be teaching the old qualifications, but they’ve got one eye on the new ones. It’s difficult to choose which exam board to use if it’s uncertain what their final specifications will involve, and what the exam papers will look like. Schools can’t buy textbooks or other resources without knowing what they will need. And pupils are choosing GCSE options with little information about what they will be studying.

Many schools are already preparing Year 9 students for the new GCSEs – either by teaching them the content directly or by laying the groundwork for the material they will be covering – but they are having to “guess” the content and the standards that these pupils will be expected to meet, according to Dr Bousted. Maths teachers only received the final specifications at the end of the summer term last year, giving them just weeks to prepare to teach them in September, a move that has added to already-heavy workloads.

Why is it taking so long?

Ofqual argues that it can’t rush the approval process because it is so important that the new qualifications are right. The watchdog is also under huge political pressure. Ministers want their reforms to produce explicitly harder exams, particularly at GCSE, but they are understood to be frustrated about what they see as a “race to the bottom”. They believe exam boards have been deliberately trying to make their qualifications easier to gain market share. Last year, all four boards had to rewrite sample GCSE maths papers at the last minute when it emerged some were too difficult and others too easy. This was embarrassing for Ofqual, because it had already approved the specifications. This time around, Ofqual is being more cautious and has rejected many of the boards’ materials, which means that much content has had to be rewritten.

Is anyone worried about the delay?

Yes, everyone, from schools to unions to heads of academy chains, is taking a very close interest in Ofqual’s progress.

Can’t teachers just use the draft specifications?

They can, but they have to be prepared for these to change, potentially quite significantly – as the GCSE maths sample test papers did at the last minute. If schools use sample papers to help decide which exam board to use, any major investment of time or money on the basis of a board’s paper is risky.

But hasn’t the government already set out the content of the new exams?

It has set out guidance on content, and this can form the basis for schools’ plans. But for many subjects, the guidance tends to be quite broad. The foreign languages guidance, for instance, goes into quite a lot of detail around grammar requirements, but says little about the topics and texts that will be covered.

Are these the new exams that will be graded from 9 to 1 instead of A* to G?

Yes, and that’s also causing problems for schools. As well as not knowing exactly what they will be teaching, teachers are uncertain about how to assess the standards pupils are working to on the new scale, for which 9 will be the highest mark and 1 the lowest.

Ofqual has published “grade descriptors” for the new exams in English and maths, which have been taught since September, but nothing for the next set of new exams.


How can schools prepare for the exam changes? One school leader offers some advice...

It was encouraging to read Ofqual last week acknowledging the importance of teachers having the specifications quickly (

In reality, however, it might already be too late. With greater breadth of content, many schools will have taken the understandable decision to begin GCSE studies in Year 9, and are now having to second-guess the requirements of examination boards with only unaccredited specifications to support them.

Ofqual claims that there is no problem as content information has been available for some time. But it is not as simple as knowing the new content. The new specifications will influence the way we track, monitor, assess, report to parents and even how we structure our schemes of learning. For example, how many teachers can truly be confident that they are measuring progress accurately when the new grading system remains so vague? However, all is not lost. I have been encouraged by the staff in my school, who have more than risen to the challenge.

What can we do?

Embrace what we already know. Make extensive use of the draft specifications from the examination boards and the confirmed content from the Department for Education. These can provide the foundations for schemes of work.

Trust in our professionalism. The freedoms in assessment and delivery come with great responsibility, but what better opportunity could there be for schools to embrace authentic assessment?

Keep parents informed. Reporting progress to parents in a combination of legacy A*-G, 1-9 grades and post-Wolf merits and distinctions is confusing and challenging. Be honest in sharing the challenges with the wider school community. In my experience, it often helps in finding solutions.

Report qualitatively. We may not know the precise descriptors for the new grading system, but we can still ascertain what pupils have mastered and what they need to learn next. This diagnostic process can still be highly valuable.

Work collaboratively. With a lack of high-quality, published materials, every department in every school suddenly has to invent its own worksheets and teaching materials. Schools’ networks like the SSAT and PiXL are working together to ensure that schools are not planning in isolation.

Plan for professional learning. Schools may not have the accredited specifications available now, but it would be wise to ensure that they are building in time to respond to any modifications. If the remaining English Baccalaureate GCSE specifications arrive in the summer – as mathematics did last year – we have to build in some opportunities for teachers to manage their workload and adapt their materials for the new specifications.

Nigel Matthias is deputy headteacher at Bay House School in Gosport, Hampshire

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