Despite Ofqual’s well-crafted explanations, the real involvement of Michael Gove in the GCSE results scandal may never be known. It suits Gove to allow Ofqual to take the flack and it’s clear that he intends to use the dispute to push ahead with his programme of examination reform. Maybe Lib-Dem opposition will stop the reintroduction of O-levels, but it won’t stop Gove seriously revising the format of GCSE so as to make it an O-level by another name.
One of the particular strengths of GCSE is the centrality of ‘criterion assessment’ where students know what they are being judged against and the level they have to reach to secure particular grades. Gove may balk at officially reintroducing ‘normative assessment’ – where the number who pass or achieve particular grades is restricted by quota; yet when Ofqual says that exam pass rates must be based on ‘comparable outcomes’ with previous years, what exactly does it mean?
GCSE is not perfect, but over the years has embodied many of the ideas associated with comprehensive education. The fact that it has been used to prop up a ‘high stakes’ assessment regime geared to league tables and performance targets – where a C grade means everything, while a D counts for nothing – should not disguise the fact that since its inception the number of entries and particularly the number of passes has continued to multiply. This, is Gove’s real problem, but it’s not one for teachers or parents and certainly not students.
With Gove now staying on as Education Secretary to ‘finish the job’ campaigners and reformers must move beyond the immediate issues of the boundary moving and campaign on a broader agenda by, for example:
- Opposing the notion of ‘dumbing down’ – there is no consistent evidence of a fall in standards. Exams may be different now; but this certainly doesn’t mean they are easier. On the contrary, with the collapse of youth employment opportunities, young people now have no choice but to work harder, often for less.
- Defending the ‘modular’ syllabuses that have been introduced and which Gove plans to axe. There is clear evidence that students like them, find them accessible and allow them greater choice.
- Supporting the right of students to continue to ‘retake’ parts of their course
- Calling for a restoration of teachers roles as assessors and as the real judge of progress.
- Ending the ‘high stakes’ culture to which GCSE has become integral and making GCSE/assessment at 16 part of real lifelong learning.
- Arguing that other policies are needed to help young people secure employment, not just education reform.