‘GCSE reforms are a return to academic challenge not seen since O-levels’

Posted on: 23 Aug 2017
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, reflects on the reforms to GCSEs ahead of results day on 24 August.

English and maths GCSEs are the most important exams most pupils will ever take, so the nervousness around this year’s newly-reformed tests in these subjects comes as no surprise.

They contain questions of a level of difficulty that we have not seen since the abolition of O-levels in 1987.

Does the new grade 9 put more pressure on pupils? Yes, a bit. But that was the point.

The most selective universities had complained that too many students were getting grades A* and A, and they were unable to select from them for that reason. That is why A* and A have become 7, 8 and 9; there can be more differentiation within this able group.

However, universities should not consider the distinction between an 8 and a 9 worth making until they have evidence that it does indicate something. After all, 95% might get you a grade 8, 96-100% a grade 9. Does the grade 9 student have greater intellectual ability and academic potential or are they simply better at writing fast, or better at checking for silly errors? Only time, and analysis of results, will tell.

The reforms are understandably - and rightly – the focus of much scrutiny, but it is important to remember the new grades form just a small part of the changes. It is too easy to focus on them and miss the main point, which is that we are trying to raise the standard of exams taken at the end of compulsory school attendance to the levels achieved in East Asia.

At present, we have two problems as a country:

  • The ‘long tail’ of pupils who fail GCSEs; who learn little in secondary school. It is this ‘tail’ which makes us different from places such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea and urban China.
  • The low level of our GCSEs, even for our most able pupils. In maths, pupils in several East Asian countries are two years ahead of us by age 16.

It is the latter problem that the GCSE reforms help deal with. The question is: What bearing they will have on the former problem? And the answer is: Not much, in themselves.

It is the quality of teaching of less able or less diligent pupils that will help them to succeed in their GCSEs. Raising the bar is only worthwhile if the high jumpers train harder and jump higher.

Within the package of changes brought about by the reforms is the scrapping of modules - taking the GCSE in small packets, with the opportunity to re-sit each packet whenever you like. It is this which makes the reformed GCSEs harder - and because they are harder, a different grading scale is necessary so they are differentiated from the old, easier GCSEs.

In addition, the amount of coursework has been greatly reduced because much of it had little value and it was an unreliable measure of a students' ability. Teachers and even parents could influence the results too readily. Only coursework which is of value and can be sensibly moderated by external examiners has been retained. As a result, schools whose results in the past have depended heavily on coursework marks are the ones that may suffer a fall in grades this year.

Finally, the syllabuses for all GCSEs have been rewritten to make them more up to date and, in some subjects, more demanding. For example, more maths has been added to science GCSEs because it was considered that some mathematical ability was essential if a pupil was to be regarded as a competent scientist.

But English and maths GCSEs are the two most critical exam subjects. If you fail either you are required to continue studying them even if you move to do a vocational course at a further education college. My hairdresser tells me he selects trainee stylists on the basis of their having passed English and maths at GCSE.

People who say “we do not need GCSEs” fail to recognise how important they are at motivating pupils, especially boys. It is the exam itself which compels pupils to cement the knowledge - those things they have been studying since the age of five - in the long term memory.