'Though significant, this latest round of changes to the exam system will deliver long term improvements in education'

Posted on: 15 Aug 2017
Posted by: Hilary French

Hilary French, headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls - part of the Girls' Day School Trust - reflects on changes to the exam system ahead of A-level and GCSE results days.

For most, August signals the dizzy heights of summer – long days and balmy nights – but for teachers or anyone who has taken public exams, August is the long awaited results month.

On Thursday, for those taking A-levels, the wait is finally over and they will awake to discover their fortunes. A week to the day later GCSE results are published and another nervous batch of students step forward to receive their envelopes!

This year more than most the anticipation is almost palpable. Changes to the system have meant that there is an even greater degree of trepidation about results day, with many students feeling that they are stepping into the unknown.

Change in any walk of life is often feared and greeted with tremendous animosity but in education, change prompts fierce debate about the impact on children’s lives and futures. I am confident that though significant, this latest round of changes will not disadvantage our students and will deliver long term improvements in education.

In the case of GCSEs advice from examining boards and the Government is that the new grades 9-1 will be benchmarked against the old A-Gs.

The Department for Education has also been at great pains to get the message across to employers and to the public about what the new grades actually mean. The new 9-1 grades, for those who do not know, will be phased in over the course of the next two years to replace the old A – G grades. This year only the two English exams, Language and Literature and Maths will be graded from 9 – 1 ; 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest. From next year, all GCSEs will be marked this way.

Whatever the changes, results aren’t expected to decline – the number of 7s, 8s and 9s awarded will be based on the proportion of the student cohort who would have been expected to get an A or an A* under the old system,9 will be awarded to the highest performing candidates. Level 4 will be a pass with 5 a strong pass.

For A-levels, the examining boards are also very keen to ensure a smooth transition into the new system, which sees a move away from modular exams and coursework and AS exams midway through the cycle, to a return to old style, linear two-year A-level courses. The aim of the changes to both GCSE and A-level is to increase academic rigour and improve England’s standing in international educational league tables by improving the quality of education our children receive.

In the long run, I am confident that these changes will deliver positive results with more rigorous academic teaching and learning and all those involved are prepared and ready to manage the transition. Universities and admissions officers are aware of the changes to A-level and all prepared to consider the implications and schools and teachers have worked hard to ensure everyone was exam ready.

Pragmatically, regardless of the changes, universities have places to fill and they still want and need the best people – they may have to recalibrate their expectations.

I genuinely think A-levels needed a shake-up. As a nation, we had been guilty of dumbing down, a trend that seriously threatened to undermine our whole academic system. Modular, continually assessed, coursework based A-levels were not only more accessible but they also changed the way people taught and learnt. As a nation we haven’t suddenly become more intelligent yet result patterns would give that impression with 10/11 As at GCSEs and 4 As at A-level a regular occurrence and Universities doling out more 1st Class Honours than ever before.

The approach to learning was becoming seriously utilitarian – students learnt how to answer exam questions and play the system – often knowing as much about the marking scheme as the wider subject. When working and learning to formula, students stop learning a subject in its widest sense and merely devise answers and strategies to maximise marks and to pass exams.

As a consequence, as a nation we were slipping further down the international PISA ranking in teaching especially in subjects like Maths and we need to arrest this decline. There will inevitably be a transition period from the old system to the new and a return to a different approach to learning which is more challenging and less predictable with exams that are non-formulaic. It will be a return to the days when studying a subject requires you not only to read the set texts but also the supporting material, and to gain the highest grades you will need to read around a topic. The only way to prepare for exams will be to be on top of your subject and know it inside out, and be ready to answer questions in a variety of different formats. There will be no short cuts.

Both teachers and pupils have had to work hard to navigate these changes and be exam ready this summer. Everyone recognised that a different approach was needed and the change had to happen sometime but until the new system is bedded in, there has and will continue to be a certain amount of feeling our way in the dark. The lack of sample papers has made it difficult to prepare, but we know that everyone is in the same boat and exam boards will not penalise pupils.

Exam boards have been working hard to make these changes work and as a school we’ve taken every opportunity offered to attend training sessions and maintain strong dialogue with them. There has been a supportive hand to hold throughout the process. We are confident that our girls will have done themselves proud and ready for whatever the exams threw at them. Thursday 17th and Thursday 24th will be exciting days.

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About Hilary French

Hilary French is Headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls GDST, a leading day school for girls aged 3 - 18.