Cautious welcome for GCSE change

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to cull coursework by axing GCSEs for a new English baccalaureate have been welcomed cautiously by FE leaders.

The Tory minister revealed his plans to end the GCSE, introduced in 1988, when he told MPs last week: “Record increases in performance at GCSE have not been matched by the same level of improvements in learning. While pass rates have soared we have fallen down international education league tables.”

Mr Gove said the eBacc would start to replace GCSEs in 2015, ending “modules” and cutting back on classroom assessment and coursework in favour of a return to more traditional end-of-year exams.

“Changes made to GCSEs, specifically the introduction of modules and the expansion of coursework and controlled assessment, further undermined the credibility of exams, leaving young people without the rigorous education they deserved,” he said.

“These reforms are radical – so we will consult widely. Their introduction will require careful preparation.”

We need to understand both the philosophy and the theory that underpins these changes”

He said that students would sit exams for the first new certificates in English, maths and the sciences in September 2015. Other subjects would follow.
Key FE figures from the Sixth Form Colleges’ Forum (SFCF), Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Association of Colleges (AoC) agreed that there was a need for consistency and said they wanted to be involved in drawing up the new system.

James Kewin, SFCF’s deputy chief executive, said: “Reform is needed for GCSEs, but the process should be guided and informed by education professionals rather than politicians.

“The timescale for implementation – particularly while there are so many other reforms in train, not least to A-levels – will also lead to confusion and disruption for students. It will be demoralising too for students sitting their GCSEs in the next few years to know that they are working towards a soon to be defunct qualification.

“And while there is certainly a need to refine assessment, removing coursework and controlled assessment completely seems extreme, and is perhaps driven by politics rather than pedagogy.”

Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, said: “We need to understand both the philosophy and the theory that underpins these changes and how they will help to improve and engage children of all abilities.

“The important thing is to use the time between now and the introduction of the new scheme to properly design and develop a coherent understandable system. As one of the largest groups of recruiters for post-GCSE students, colleges would be happy to help in this process. Hopefully this would mean a joined-up passage through education for every student taking these exams.

“We need to understand how the new system regarding awarding bodies will work and will be particularly keen to make sure that it does not become uneconomical, and that there are no knock-on effects for other qualifications.”

Brian Lightman, general secretary at ASCL, said: “We look forward to responding to the actual proposals in detail and engaging with the government in a discussion about reforming exams in a way the meets 21st-century needs.

“It will be essential to debate the future of the national curriculum alongside proposals to change qualifications. Reforming exams and the school accountability framework without considering the curriculum would be a classic case of cart-before-the-horse and would not lead to improved standards.
“This is a once-in-a-generation reform and will affect the lives of millions of young people and our economic future. It is right to defer the start to 2015, to make sure everyone affected, including parents and professionals, can have an input.

“The knock-on effect of the more rigorous exams on post-16 could be significant, depending on the number of students who do not pass the exams at 16, or for whatever reason are deemed not ready to take them, and sit them at 17 or 18. We’re pleased that the consultation at least acknowledges that there will be additional pressure on post-16 institutions.

“We cannot allow the problems of this year’s exams to be swept under the carpet in the fixation with future reform. We must make sure that lessons are learned from this year’s fiasco, and that the current exams are administered properly for the next four years.”