Making the Grades

Damon Jones considers UK exam boards’ responses to the latest official guidelines issued by OFQUAL, aimed at shaking up the GCSE standard

It seems that everyone with an investment in education is keen to assess Britain’s educational assessors. The latter’s duties, including setting exams, sharing results and bestowing qualifications, are integral to the learning process – and thus the subject of intense scrutiny. Omitting key historical episodes, canonical deities such as Shakespeare, or even well-loved modern classics like Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ stokes the ire of traditionalists, who are quick to interpret such changes as ideologically motivated.

The examiners have no choice but to modernise, however. Each of the UK’s independent exam boards must comply with the recommendations issued by the Government’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (OFQUAL). At GCSE level, the organisation is beginning to introduce a numeric grading system, which will replace the time-honoured alphabetic ratings. Courses themselves will also change – eschewing modularity to become more linear, and with more restrictions imposed on tiering.

The first revamped assessments are due in 2017, and will be pre-empted by amendments to classroom tuition. While updating their respective syllabi, the exam boards must also consider the proliferation of remote learning, and the emergence of a globalised educational culture in which students regularly cross borders. But will the actual abilities being examined fundamentally change, or merely the courses and tests offered by the exam boards?

“Academic rigour remains as important as ever, but there has been an important shift towards examining skills as well as essential knowledge,” comments Peter Kirk, Executive Chairman of the Independent Schools Examinations Board (ISEB), which, uniquely, sets examinations and assessments for pupils seeking entry to independent senior schools at 11+ and 13+.

Although there are variations between the requirements of individual establishments, “senior independent schools continue to look for candidates who demonstrate intellectual curiosity with enquiring, creative and logical minds,” says Kirk. “In addition, young people are growing up in a world where a great deal of information can be accessed using technology: so the application of ICT across a wide range of academic subjects has become a very important development for independent schools.”

Many independent pupils’ first encounter with an examining board, ISEB offers papers including as the Common Entrance and Common Academic Scholarship examinations. The 13+ papers include ten academic subjects, spanning science, humanities, Latin and modern languages, and were endorsed by former Education secretary Michael Gove as, in Kirk’s words, something of a “gold standard”. The exams are widely used throughout the UK, with 325 schools entering candidates last year, alongside numerous individual learners and overseas pupils.

Syllabi are regularly reviewed, and what Kirk describes as “significant changes” have been made to been made to Geography and History, with Maths and Science shortly to be revised in accordance with the National Curriculum. Mandarin Chinese is now offered at two levels, the first of which will only be available as an online test from September 2014. “We also offer an increasingly popular online, adaptive, standardised pre-test for pupils in Years 5 or 6, something that selective senior schools are showing a great deal of interest in,” explains Kirk. “ISEB certainly thinks that online testing will be an important area for development in the years ahead, and believes it is leading the way.”

The largest awarding organisation in the UK, Pearson offers GCSE and A-level certification, alongside vocational BTECs and numerous other forms of training. Managing Director Mark Anderson concurs on the necessity for exam boards to adapt. “It’s vital that we review our education system and its qualifications on a regular basis, so that we continue to offer young people the standard of education they need in order to succeed and excel throughout their lives.”

Anderson believes that the impact of the latest GCSE revisions on schools will vary. Those who were formerly advocates of modular assessment will need to make more adjustments, whereas others may find the new system allows greater freedom, although it could also create challenges around tracking the progress of candidates.

Employing benchmarks can help achieve this, claims Anderson, and should allow stakeholders (including employers, universities, students, parents and teachers) to convert and compare past and present exam grades. “OFQUAL are currently putting together a report following a consultation on their recommendations for ensuring that current standards on grading are taken forward,” Anderson details. “Our preferred approach would be to use statistical information to link the award of the new grades to current grades.”

One radical form of standardisation would be to consolidate the UK’s exam boards, and to introduce a single body – a measure often proposed by critics. “It is important that we maintain choice in our exam system, and incentivise innovation to ensure that the UK leads the pack in education,” says Anderson.

“Exam boards do not compete on the level of difficulty or standard of our papers, but we do compete on the quality of the offer we present to schools, as well as on how well we prepare and support them to meet the needs of their students, so that they can reach their full potential.” A recent report issued by the Centre for Market Reform of Education agrees, claiming that governmental obsession with equivalency and “comparability of outcomes” could potentially mar progress, and that diversity, alongside the proper incentives for growth, should be sustained amongst the various boards.

One recent success in this regard is the IGCSE qualification offered by Cambridge International Examinations, which works with over 10,000 schools in 160 countries, and is often favoured by UK independents. The number of subjects offered – over 70 – is diverse, and include the social sciences, creative, technical and vocational themes. “Cambridge IGCSE is actually the world’s most popular qualification for 14- to 16-year-olds,” says Peter Monteath, the organisation’s Regional Director for the UK and Ireland. The standard is often used to prepare students for the progression to further education and, rather than a modular format, has maintained a linear structure, with exams at the end of each two-year course.

Other key differences between IGCSE and a standard UK GCSE are its culturally neutral content and a degree of independence from regulatory intervention, since it sits outside the UK system. This has resulted in greater consistency and stability in the IGCSE structure – qualities valued by many educators. Monteath argues that the qualification is commonly regarded as a “global academic currency” – one which could put candidates on an equal footing with other global citizens.

The numbers of pupils obtaining the qualifications is certainly significant, with some 500,000 multinational entries made across all subjects each year. Despite this popularity, the 2017 performance tables indicating the success of schools teaching the new style GCSE will partially exclude IGCSE – which could cause some educators to temporarily drop in official rankings.

English, English Literature and Mathematics are all affected, although IGCSE expect this omission to be short-lived. “We can apply for performance table inclusion after the first year of examining the reformed GCSEs – and we will do so,” responds Monteath. “We are already developing new specifications of the first round of subjects to undergo examination in the UK GCSE system, and we will submit these for re-inclusion in performance tables in 2018. Some independent schools have told us that they will simply use whichever qualification they feel is best suited to their students, regardless of their inclusion in performance tables. For other schools, performance tables are clearly of importance.”

With the sector keenly observing how each exam board tailors its proposition to comply with OFQUAL, the endorsement of schools will ultimately determine whether their revamps will graduate with honours.

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