Is GQ reform a good thing?

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Next year's changes to GCSEs and A-levels will bring a wave of fresh challenges for schools already swamped with other major reforms. Michael McGarvey outlines the key issues leaders will need to be aware of in the run up to September 2015 and beyond.

Not since GCSEs replaced ‘O’ Levels in the mid-1980s has there been such a ‘perfect storm’ of change in education as we face now with the forthcoming DfE reform of GCSEs and A Levels in England.

September 2015 will see the introduction of new, more rigorous GCSE courses in English Literature, English Language and maths, to be followed a year later by sciences, humanities and modern languages. Between 2015 and 2018, all A Levels will be similarly redeveloped, with AS-levels being decoupled from A-levels to become a stand-alone qualification. 

The scale and impact of these changes has proved controversial and will remain a legacy of the tenure of Michael Gove, who instigated the reform.

Too much too soon?

While education secretaries – even governments – may come and go, this reform is likely to endure, largely because there does appear to be a broad acceptance that standards have slipped and cross-party agreement that raising the bar is no bad thing. Much of the media coverage around this reform, perhaps understandably, has centred on key features of the exams themselves, including the introduction of a new grading scale, the moving from modular to linear courses and fewer ‘tiered’ examination papers. 

But less focus has been placed on the speed of the implementation and the scale of the changes.  It’s a major volume of change coming hot on the heels of the introduction of the new national curriculum 2014 - with large numbers of the teaching profession having neither studied nor taught linear courses before.

Consider also that everything is being embedded in a school system transformed by the academy programme – over 50 per cent of England's state secondary schools are, or are about to become, academies
 – and the consequent loosening of local authority influence on education. The DfE’s system-led approach is an ambitious policy aimed at harnessing the skills and knowledge from within schools, and the teaching schools and leaders of education will play a crucial role in this period of change. Only recently 32 maths hubs were announced by the DfE to accelerate good practice across schools.

A further factor, which I feel commentators have rather overlooked, is the introduction of the new school performance measure, Progress 8, which is set to have a huge impact on the level and standard of assessment.

I think it is well designed and well considered as a policy, because schools which don’t have a particularly strong attainment, but do have strong progress, will be measured above the floor standard. But it is a significant departure from the current method of ranking schools and there are bound to be repercussions and surprises on the league tables and performance metrics. 

With maths and English Language GCSEs both double weighted and accounting for 40 per cent of the total Progress 8 score, the importance of these core subjects cannot be overstated. Furthermore, with course work and controlled assessment largely replaced with a ‘high-stakes’ exam at the end of two years, pupils and teachers will have to adjust their revision and exam preparation requirements accordingly. 

What does history teach us about the impact of reform?

This reform is akin to change from O Levels to GCSE back in the 1980s and there is likely to be quite a tough transition on grade/progression during the next two to three years as schools also face new entry patterns, pretty much total restriction on early entry, very limited re-sit opportunities, the move to linear, and the introduction of a new grading system. These are, as Ofqual has already warned schools, going to lead to some surprises in results this summer and in years to come.

Teachers are likely to need huge support and new resources to help them cope with the challenges of teaching linear courses and placing greater emphasis on raising the attainment of the entire cohort of pupils.
 
What happens next?

I think awareness levels in schools need to be raised – much of the media coverage to date has been patchy and trivial and missed some of the main points.  For example, the recent debate on prescribed reading for English was excessive in the context of much deeper reforms.  

I think schools also need to examine what progress 8 will mean for them and their intake. And because Progress 8 still allows three slots for non EBacc subjects for every school – a point that is somewhat overlooked in the coverage –schools need to look closely at their vocational offering and maintain and develop those options – it’s a valid pathway for many students in this country.

More funded initiatives to support the system-led approach will help schools – the new maths hubs are a good start here.
 Timing and challenges aside, it’s a very exciting time to be working in education and the broad acceptance of the need for this reform should mean that it’s a success. It’s brave and heading in the right direction.

Michael McGarvey,  Director, UK Schools,  at Cambridge University Press

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