There’s a bit of snagging in the new exam system

17th March 2017 at 00:00
Not plain sailing: The 'rigour revolution' has led to several issues for sixth-form colleges
Several ‘unintended consequences’ of reforms need fixing, say sixth-form colleges

After a tsunami of changes to the curriculum, qualifications, assessment methodologies and accountability frameworks, we are now in a period of implementation, putting into practice the initiatives and developments of recent years.

Former education secretary Nicky Morgan called it a “rigour revolution”. Started by her predecessor, Michael Gove, this was the government’s strategy to raise educational standards by raising the bar. Making greater demands of students – what they learn, how they are tested, what marks they need to pass – would, it was argued, raise aspirations and expectations, and, therefore, standards.

The analogy used was that “all boats rise in a rising tide”, meaning that as the tide comes in, the water level rises and all the boats in the harbour rise accordingly. Of course, there is a risk that a tide that comes in too fast will cause the water to rise so sharply that some of the more fragile, leaky boats will be swamped and will sink. The government’s own report, GCSE, AS and A-level Subject Content: equality analysis, identified the difficulties that the reformed qualifications might present to less-able learners, and we must make sure we provide a curriculum that is accessible, engaging and enjoyable for all.

The “rigour revolution” is characterised by a new and more demanding national curriculum and examination syllabus, new and tougher exam questions, and a new and higher pass mark.

The new accountability framework is founded on the progress made by all learners, particularly those in certain categories, such as the pupil-premium group, and on those supposedly more demanding and valuable disciplines that receive special attention in performance measures.

Devil in the detail

As is so often the case, in a time of great change, it is only at the implementation phase that unintended consequences start to emerge. Teachers, busy rewriting schemes of work, lesson plans and teaching resources to prepare students for the new content for the new standard, are now getting down to the detail, and the snagging – the parts that don’t quite work or don’t quite fit – needs to be dealt with.

1. GCSEs ‘less appealing’

Early indications suggest that the new English and maths GCSEs are less appealing and enjoyable than the old ones. In recent post-16 open evenings, several Year 11 students said that they would not choose A levels in maths or English because they did not enjoy these subjects. This, of course, is not good news at a time when there is such a premium on these two disciplines.

2. Narrowing options

The pressure on schools to focus on their GCSE results in the English Baccalaureate subjects means that fewer students are opting for non-EBacc subjects. This leaves sixth-form providers in the position where they have to withdraw their offer of, for example, music and drama, or offer them as ab initio courses for those who are interested in studying them, but have never had opportunity to do so.

Students can no longer afford to drop a subject after a term

3. Just three subjects

The decoupling of AS and A level, combined with low funding levels, means that sixth-form providers are increasingly offering only three subjects from the outset rather than the four we have become used to. This has the effect of reducing curriculum breadth, as more marginal subjects, including foreign languages, are no longer available. A diet of three subjects means fewer lessons on the timetable of each student and, therefore, an opportunity to reduce staff numbers and costs. But it also means that minority subjects are at risk. And it means that students can no longer afford to drop a subject after a term if they discover they made a wrong choice at the start of term one.

4. Spotting struggling students

The move away from AS exams at the end of Year 12 will leave teachers with less of an indication of whether a student is suitable for the full A level. It will therefore be harder to identify those who are struggling; more students will carry on for the full two years, ending with low grades and distorting the grade boundaries.

5. Making the grade

The new grade 4 in GCSE maths and English meets the government’s condition of funding for post-16 students for the next couple of years. As colleges walk the tightrope between maintaining student numbers and maintaining the academic profile of their cohort, many students will be accepted with a grade 4. However, in two years’ time, the “good GCSE pass” will be defined as a grade 5. Those who, in the next two years, achieve a grade 4 may be at a disadvantage when they eventually look to embark on a professional career. As a consequence, sixth-form colleges are now looking to offer opportunities for students to convert their grade 4 to a grade 5.

6. Sixth-form teachers must keep up

It is vital for sixth-form teachers to have a detailed knowledge of changes in key stage 4. As the reformed GCSEs take effect, a new cohort will have learned different content and, it is hoped, reached a higher standard. In order to avoid taking a big step backwards in September, teachers need to plan their courses with this in mind.


The sixth-form sector is embracing all the changes, along with the ambition to raise standards, but some of the implications are only now beginning to emerge and we need to remain fleet-footed and flexible in order to ensure the effective implementation of the changes for all.

Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

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