What we desperately need is a secretary of state rather less anxious to fiddle around with exams

Posted on: 19 Aug 2014
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

By Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of ISC

So, the first year with no January AS or A2 papers. Schools know that the January resits have hitherto helped to improve their pupils’ results, but there has been general acceptance that the decision to end January exams was a good one – there were just too many exams, too much resitting of modules, too much grade inflation.

Ofqual has ensured that the national pattern of grades looks similar to last year. They are holding back grade inflation while protecting the interests of this year’s candidates.

The 2014 results show some important trends in terms of subject choice. The EBacc league table measure generated a significant increase last year in the numbers taking GCSEs in modern languages, geography and history; many of the same students have now taken these subjects through to AS-level. So while the numbers taking Spanish at A-level fell this year, we can be sure they will rise next. The Extended Project is growing in popularity, giving the students who take it an advantage in terms of university entry.

Looking to the future, there is understandable nervousness about the scale of impending changes - but only three GCSEs are being reformed for teaching starting in 2015 and, at A-level, only those subjects which were felt to require very limited change will kick off in that same year. It should be perfectly possible to handle change on this scale.

Exam boards are now submitting their draft A-level specifications and sample assessment materials to Ofqual for approval. Once approved, they will be published immediately and this will allow schools to decide what to offer in a year’s time. Last year 93.7% of independent school pupils sat A-levels, but a slowly growing number take the Pre-U, international A-level or IB as alternatives; what happens next depends in good measure on the details of the reformed A-level syllabuses.

What about Tristram Hunt's statement that he will 'put on hold the Tory reforms of A-levels if Labour is elected next May?' This is the kind of political interference with the assessment system that teachers and pupils have suffered from for years. It means that schools will be unsure about preparing for the reformed AS and A-levels. Any such uncertainty might drive some independent schools into the arms of the international A-level and Pre-U, creating once again a split between the independent and maintained sectors.

It implies that 'putting on hold' the reforms with three months' notice is a simple matter. The old syllabuses will have been withdrawn by then, new textbooks published and ordered, training courses delivered.

Mr Hunt speaks as if he knows what is best for schools and universities. But in fact schools and universities had mixed responses to the Gove reforms. Some universities wanted to retain the coupled AS, others didn't. University staff have written the reformed AS and A-level specifications and regard them as a better preparation for university than the current courses.

After the shambles of the Ed Balls Diploma, the speed of the Gove reforms and the prospect of a Labour government initiating another round of reform (because it simply won't be a matter of just reverting to the old system), what England desperately needs now is a Secretary of State for Education who is rather less anxious to make a mark by fiddling around with public examinations designed for the more able and has a bit more enthusiasm for dealing with the main issue in British education – the underachievement of the bottom third of pupils.

This Opinion piece appeared in the TES yesterday.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.