People have been rubbishing GCSEs since they were first proposed in the 1980s: the two tier system of O Levels and CSE was better they maintained so why introduce something new, employers don’t want it and neither do parents and many schools. Yet, at least initially, it did garner some support especially in schools where heads of department no longer had to make the invidious decision over which exam to enter students for. By the late 1990s, however, a process of systematic rubbishing of GCSEs began and has continued with increasing ferocity until radical reform became inevitable. You might have thought that politicians would have welcomed increasingly improving national examination performance but you would be wrong. Comparison with O Levels suggested that GCSEs were easier and that grades had been inflated to allow incremental improvement in performance. The buzz words became ‘lack of rigour’ and grade inflation. As far as politicians of all parties are concerned the current system is discredited, a situation aided by the introduction of the modular approach that allows students to re-sit and improve their marks. Yet reform will not occur until after the election in 2015 with students not taking the new examination until 2017 with four years of students continuing to take something that is now regarded as discredited!
Until tomorrow it is unclear precisely what form the new examination will take. What we do know is that there will be no return to the two tier system and there will be an emphasis on a singly end-of-year exam. Mr Clegg had suggested that reform will do three simple things:
Firstly give parents confidence in the exams their children are taking, secondly raise standards for all our children in schools in the country but thirdly and crucially not exclude any children from the new exam system.
Finally, its introduction is not going to be rushed: a good thing given the disastrous experience of the last government in introducing reforms at Advanced Level. These are all positive things though there may be difficulties in applying end-of-year examinations effectively to all subjects. The production of a portfolio in Art, for instance, could well be retained as part of the assessment even if coursework disappears in other subjects. There is also still the unresolved issue of the equivalence of vocational courses that provide motivation for students for whom academic courses have little resonance.
The critical issue is whether reform will improve ‘standards’. The difficulty is that standards are rarely defined precisely and have acquired a rhetorical character than far exceeds their actual nature. To reiterate a point I’ve made on several occasions about the crucial C/D divide: the standard for achieving a grade C, though not absolute, should be a defined standard that remains unchanged for say a five year period. If 55 per cent is the pass mark for grade C one year, there is no logical reason (though their may be a statistical one if you want to limit the numbers achieving it) why the same mark should not apply the following year. It would then be known and consistent over that five year period. Politicians could then say with confidence, standards have improved or not; parents and employers could have confidence in the system and students (remember them, the ones seemingly forgotten in all the rhetoric) would know where they stood. Reform may be necessary but if badly handled we’ll just be back into the old and seemingly perennial behaviour of the last half century of rubbishing the examination system.