Bumpy road ahead

New ex­ams and ‘messy’ GCSE grades leave heads in the dark ahead of re­sults

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL - Eleanor busby

How re­forms will lead to a sum­mer of volatil­ity for schools

SCHOOLS ARE fac­ing huge change and volatil­ity this sum­mer, thanks to the big­gest shake-up of the ex­ams sys­tem in three decades.

Next week, pupils will re­ceive exam re­sults for the first set of new “lin­ear” A lev­els – in­volv­ing less course­work and a move away from mod­u­lar ex­ams – and later this month, schools will find out how their pupils per­formed in the tougher GCSES.

De­spite at­tempts by Ofqual to re­as­sure schools that pupils will not be ad­versely af­fected by the sweep­ing exam re­forms, a vast amount of un­cer­tainty re­mains.

Stu­art Mclaugh­lin, head­teacher of Bower Park Acad­emy in Rom­ford, East Lon­don, who has been work­ing in schools for 30 years, says: “This is the big­gest pe­riod of un­cer­tainty. The fact that they have changed the ex­ams and the grad­ing sys­tem has made it the most dif­fi­cult pe­riod for a long, long time.”

One of the big­gest con­cerns is that two GCSE grad­ing sys­tems will now run along­side each other for three years. As the re­forms are phased in, pupils will re­ceive a mix of let­ters and num­bers. Pupils will be awarded numer­i­cal grades (from 9 to 1) in the new English lit­er­a­ture, English lan­guage and maths GCSES this sum­mer, but they will still re­ceive A* to G in other sub­jects.

The nine-num­ber scale does not di­rectly com­pare with the eight-let­ter scale (see graphic, right). “[Teach­ers] prob­a­bly have no idea whether a pupil has any chance of get­ting a grade 9 or not,” Barn­aby Lenon, chair of the In­de­pen­dent Schools Coun­cil, says. The govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to have two dif­fer­ent pass grades – 4 as a “stan­dard pass” (the min­i­mum level re­quired for English and maths) and 5 as a “strong pass” – has fur­ther con­fused mat­ters.

Be­cause of the changes, on GCSE re­sults day it will be dif­fi­cult for schools to com­pare year-on-year per­for­mance, and the way that the re­sults are re­ported will dif­fer from school to school. In fact, a group of heads in Steve­nage, Hert­ford­shire, have taken the de­ci­sion not to pub­lish their re­sults this year.

Mal­colm Trobe, deputy gen­eral sec­re­tary of the As­so­ci­a­tion of School and Col­lege Lead­ers, an­tic­i­pates that more schools will take a sim­i­lar de­ci­sion be­cause of the “very messy” grad­ing sys­tem.

“It is not com­pa­ra­ble and you have a mixed sys­tem, which is go­ing to make it re­ally, re­ally dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand,” he says. “And the same will be true in 2018 and 2019.”

Adding to many head­teach­ers’ anx­i­ety, state schools will have to wait un­til the au­tumn to find out their Progress 8 scores (see page 11). Sally Col­lier, chief reg­u­la­tor of Ofqual, has warned Of­sted, re­gional schools com­mis­sion­ers and gov­er­nors against mak­ing “knee-jerk” re­ac­tions to re­sults this year.

Sarah Han­nafin, pol­icy ad­viser at the NAHT head­teach­ers’ union, says: “It is un­wise to draw con­clu­sions about a school’s suc­cess or fail­ure from the data this year. We need to be very care­ful about any heavy-handed in­ter­ven­tion on the ba­sis of this year’s re­sults, as it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Schools that re­lied heav­ily on course­work marks could find their re­sults drop in the

13 new lin­ear A lev­els and three new GCSES be­ing awarded this year (see timeline, above).

How­ever, de­spite all the re­forms, Ofqual in­sists that na­tional re­sults will be sim­i­lar to last year if the co­hort is sim­i­lar to last year.

But where the co­hort changes sig­nif­i­cantly, re­sults could al­ter. The num­ber of GCSE English en­tries jumped by around 50 per cent this year, af­ter some schools moved away from IGCSES as they no longer count in the per­for­mance ta­bles. More pupils are do­ing English lit­er­a­ture now that it counts to­wards Progress 8. This means that more low­er­abil­ity pupils are be­ing en­tered for the ex­ams, which could lead to a fall in the over­all pro­por­tion of top grades this sum­mer.

Chris Keates, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the NASUWT teach­ing union, says: “The changes to A lev­els and GCSES have un­doubt­edly cre­ated great un­cer­tainty and may well lead to greater volatil­ity in this year’s re­sults.”

Keates ac­cuses the Depart­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion of fail­ing to pre­pare schools ad­e­quately for the up­heaval. How­ever, a DFE spokesper­son re­sponds: “This year’s GCSES and A lev­els are the next step in a six-year process of re­form to en­sure young peo­ple have the knowl­edge and skills they need to suc­ceed in the fu­ture.

“Teach­ers, schools and uni­ver­si­ties were con­sulted through­out their de­vel­op­ment and, work­ing with Ofqual, we have pub­lished mul­ti­ple re­sources over a num­ber of years about the new qual­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing in­for­ma­tion packs for every school and a ded­i­cated web­site to an­swer ques­tions peo­ple might have. We have also de­lib­er­ately phased in the in­tro­duc­tion of the new GCSES to re­duce work­load on the pro­fes­sion and en­sure teach­ers and stu­dents have time to pre­pare.”

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