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Tiers before belltime

Easy and difficult papers for the same exam were phased out with CSE and O-level. So why is SCAA reintroducing "tiering" in some subjects? They say it's to stretch the brightest and to leave fewer pupils floundering. But teachers say they'll be forced to divide pupils into the bright and not-so, while parents fear their children will miss the best grade possible. Elaine Williams reports.

A persistently contentious issue at parents' meetings up and down the land is the tiering of GCSE mathematics. Parents and pupils feel aggrieved that many lower-achieving students are entered for an exam in which their highest hope can only be a grade C.

"It is the one thing here that provokes antagonism in the classroom," says Patrick Eavis, the head of Queen Elizabeth High School, Hexham, a high-achieving school in Northumberland. "Children don't like it and parents go off the deep end about it when we have meetings about GCSE choices. They want their child to have the fullest possible range of grades open to him or her."

How then will parents feel in 1998 when most subjects will be tiered at examination? Mr Eavis believes there will be uproar. Many other heads feel that the Government's concern about standards at GCSE has led them to re-introduce O-level and CSE by the back door - and that such a move will prove highly unpopular.

Keith Wragg, the head of Huntington School in York, believes this will become a greater issue as time goes by. "At present schools are taken up with Dearing, the change to standards of the Orders at key stage 4, the re-drafting of schemes of work. The penny is only just beginning to drop that tiering will be the norm for most subjects."

Setting and streaming are becoming common in many schools in many subjects. The majority of teachers sympathise with the rationale behind the tiering of a subject like maths, which matches papers more closely to a candidate's ability. Far better to do this than to enter pupils for an exam in which the majority will flounder and the few will not be stretched enough.

But often parents do not see it this way. They like to feel that the possibility remains that on a good day their child could achieve the highest grade. "Parents get uptight at the thought that there is a cut-off point for their child and I believe it will demotivate pupils," says Mr Wragg. "Teachers tell pupils that to get into the sixth form they have to try to get Bs, yet they may be entering them for exams in which they cannot get more than a C. This is very discouraging."

Moreover the new arrangements appear inconsistent. Differentiation by outcome remains for coursework, in subjects where unseen exam papers will be tiered. History remains untiered, unlike English and geography.

John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association, believes this alone highlights the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's lack of philosophical underpinning of the issue.

Geraint Howell is the chief inspector for schools in Cumbria and a previous member of the National Curriculum Council history board. Historians, he says, have always believed that fundamental questions in history can be asked in the same way across levels and abilities. "A question like 'What are the short and long-term causes of the First World War?' could appear in both GCSE and the final paper of a first degree. The difference would lie in the detail and understanding shown in the answers."

Like Mr Howell, many historians are passionately in favour of differentiation by outcome rather than tiering, but then so are many English and geography teachers. If, as SCAA claims, tiering decisions were made by officers after widespread consultation, then the outcome in favour of tiering for geography and English in particular, is curious. Nick Tate, SCAA's chief executive, is an historian and is believed to have intervened finally on behalf of his subject.

Possibly more contentious is the fact that a borderline child submitted for the top A to D paper could end up with an unclassified on a bad day, and that a borderline child submitted for the lower C to G tier, who might produce B material on a good day, can attain no higher than a C.

With O-level and CSE, teachers could submit a borderline candidate for both exams. This will not be possible with tiering arrangements.

John Dunford believes that tiering can therefore work against the late developer. Although schools recognise that some children are capable of making a spurt in the last stages, the reality will mean that higher sets will cover more ground - and that the possibilities of a borderline child switching and catching up are slim.

The current situation

Maths has been tiered since 1988 when GCSE began. The number of tiers is left to the discretion of exam boards - some use two, some as many as four. Three is the most common. Science has also been tiered under similar arrangements. Some boards have tiered geography.

New tiering arrangements were introduced for maths and science last year with constraints on the method. English was tiered for the first time.

In maths and science there are to be no more than four grades in a single tier, though the number of tiers is not prescribed. In English there is to be no more than five grades in each tier in a two-tier system. A system of "allowed grades" is in operation which means that in exceptional circumstances a candidate can be given one grade above or below the target range of each tier.

SCAA believes that "allowed grades" have led to confusion, with boards not really knowing how wide to make the target range of each tier.

This summer technology, IT and design technology have been tiered in a two-tier system with a four-grade range with "allowed grades".

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