ISC statement: Exam difficulty in light of recent reforms

Posted on: 18 Jun 2018
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

ISC chairman, Barnaby Lenon, assesses the issue of exam difficulty in light of recent reforms.

Pupils may be in tears because their GCSEs and A-levels are difficult, but it might be worth defining what we mean by ‘difficult’.

The level of difficulty of the syllabus and exam questions has increased at GCSE but less so at A-level. The reason that GCSEs were made harder was because the standard of exams set in England had fallen behind that of our competitor countries. A small number of super-hard questions have been introduced at GCSE simply to identify those few outstanding candidates who will be awarded a grade 9. The days are gone when most GCSE candidates could manage all questions - a price many of us are happy to pay for greater rigour. A-levels, however, are only harder in the sense that modules (which allowed students to sit and resit exam papers in small packets over two years) are gone.

But there is another thing to bear in mind when thinking about the difficulty of an exam and that is the generosity of the grading. Under Ofqual rules, in each subject roughly the same proportion of students will get each grade as students got with the ‘old’ exams, so if an exam is especially hard this summer the mark required to get any given grade will be low. In this way the interests of pupils taking the reformed exams are protected.