FORUM
ISSN 0963-8253


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Volume 45 Number 3 2003

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CONTENTS | VIEW FULL TEXT

Editorial, 81
David Rosenberg War and Peace and Race and Equality Issues, 83
Heather Brewer Music in Key Stage 2: training and supporting the non-music specialist class teacher, 88
Viv Ellis Didactus Interruptus: or, why the Key Stage 3 English Strand should withdraw (and what should happen next), 92
Patrick Yarker The Hours of Folly: settling accounts with SATS, 98
David Howard Justice, Inclusion and Comprehensive Values: three essays on comprehensive education, 102
David Brown Floor Targets Will Cause Schools to Fail, 109
Derek Gillard Food for Thought: child nutrition, the school dinner and the food industry, 111
Barbara Spender Networked Learning: from competition to collaboration, 119
John Bateman & Christopher Rhodes Learning Mentors: policy ‘hopes’, professional identities and ‘additionalities’, 121
Julia Bard School Governors, 124
Chris Searle Book Review, 127

 

Editorial. Examination Overhaul

BACK TO CONTENTS LIST

Once again last Summer (2003), there was much talk in the media about the future of the exam system for older students in both state and independent secondary schools. Stripped of all the extraneous material, this discussion, much of it covering familiar territory, can be dealt with under FOUR main headings: the future of the GCSE; the timing of the universities admissions procedures; the question as to whether or not A Levels are getting ‘easier’; and the desirability or otherwise of introducing on a nationwide basis a British version of the International Baccalaureate. These topics are, of course, all related to one another; and there is often a particular vision of the future of education underlying the way in which each one is presented.

(1) The future of the GCSE as a common system of examining at sixteen-plus is very much tied up with the possible future structure of a single Baccalaureate-style diploma; but the discussion that began in the national press in August had a quite distinct and separate provenance.

It was in The Daily Telegraph of the 4 August that a story appeared by John Clare with the headline: ‘Eton leads way in abandoning ‘dumbed-down’ GCSE exams’. The clue to the whole tenor of the piece lies in the use of that term ‘dumbed-down’, for the main point of the story was that leading independent schools were preparing to jettison the GCSE – believing that ‘continuous dumbing-down’ had made it ‘too easy for able pupils’. In the view of Tony Little, having just completed his first year as Head of Eton: ‘It is just like Boy Scouts collecting badges. … One has to ask what the educational value of it all is.’ Boys admitted to Eton in September 2004 would bypass GCSE and move straight on to AS Levels which they would be able to take in at least five subjects a year early, at the age of sixteen. They would then have two years in the Sixth Form to study a range of subjects in depth, including as many A2 subjects as they might need ‘to secure entry to the best universities’.

This story was followed up by an interview given to The Times by Dr Ken Boston, which appeared on the 11 August, in which the Chief Executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) stressed that all schools were free to abandon GCSEs completely, if they thought that was a good idea. Dr Boston said he was quite happy to let individual headteachers decide whether teenagers should sit any GCSEs at all or move instead straight on to AS exams as part of their A Level courses. In his view, pupils were ‘over-burdened’ by sitting GCSEs, AS Levels and A Levels between the ages of sixteen and eighteen; and the whole system had to be made less rigid: ‘if a school wants to offer only a few GCSEs or not hold them at all and go straight to AS and A Levels, then that is perfectly open to them. … It shows flexibility in the system, which is admirable.

Not surprisingly, after pressure from the Government, Dr Boston felt obliged to rein in his comments, and he was soon reassuring a BBC interviewer that the GCSEs were ‘robust, internationally recognised, flexible qualifications’ and that ‘the QCA would not be doing anything as crude as dropping them’. Meanwhile, Education Minister David Miliband spent the 11 August touring radio and television studios stressing that reform of the examination system was a long-term project and urging people not to be distracted by the unfortunate and ill-informed debate triggered by Dr Boston’s remarks.

As long ago as the Spring of 2000, I wrote an article for this journal with the headline: ‘Why the GCSE should be abolished’ (Volume 42, Number 1, pp. 28‑30). My argument was that the GCSE had failed to become a comprehensive and liberating system recognising the abilities and talents of all pupils. The importance of league table success had led many secondary schools to develop new ways of identifying and encouraging those pupils who might, with the right sort of support, manage a C grade in a number of subjects, while neglecting those youngsters thought unable to contribute to the all-important A*-to-C grades benchmark. The GCSE had, in fact, become like the O Level it replaced in 1986, an exam for the ‘most able’ pupils. This year’s results, published on the 21 August, revealed a worrying trend where the overall pass rate – grades A*-to-G – fell from 97.9 to 97.6 per cent, while up to 60,000 pupils were estimated to be leaving school with no qualifications at all.

These seem to me to be legitimate reasons for wanting to see a radical overhaul of the fourteen-to-nineteen exam system which we will return to later in this Editorial. There is certainly a case for moving towards a situation where eighteen is the effective school leaving age. What worries me about hasty adoption of the Eton plan is that it could result in the GCSE being viewed, in the words of John Clare of The Telegraph, as ‘an exam for the less academically able’.

(2) Somewhat less controversially, a story appeared in The Observer of the 10 August which talked about plans for a ‘shake-up’ of university admissions whereby teenagers would apply for universities places only after receiving their A Level results. In the view of Professor Steven Schwartz, the chief government adviser on university admissions and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, this major change to the admissions procedures would encourage youngsters from ‘a broader range of social backgrounds’ to go to university. It would give more flexibility by allowing youngsters to apply for courses based on actual rather than predicted results. Those who received unexpectedly good results – often from ‘less privileged’ backgrounds – would then not be at a disadvantage. Unusually, the new scheme appeared to have the backing of private school heads and of the Conservatives – despite the fears of university admissions tutors that it risked causing huge upheaval.

(3) Our third major story takes us back to the question of standards and to the English obsession with identifying and cherishing elites. A story appeared in The Times of the 14 August (and where would we be without this wonderful harbinger of terrible times ahead?) headlined ‘Pass rate soars as pupils chase ‘easy’ A Levels’. On the day that the A Level pass rate hit a record 95.4 per cent, it was reported that students were shunning ‘traditional academic subjects’ in favour of ‘less demanding A Levels’ to help them win a place at university. Damian Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, called on the QCA to carry out an inquiry to ensure that all A Levels were of equal difficulty. ‘This would avoid the worrying phenomenon of students dropping languages, maths and sciences for other allegedly easier A Levels’, he said.

Four days later (the 18 August), a story appeared in the same newspaper reporting that Oxford and Cambridge were turning their back on A Levels and reintroducing their own entrance papers after being ‘overwhelmed’ by candidates with top grades. A new two-hour paper for medical students, to be introduced in the Autumn, would be used as the template for separate entry tests in a range of other subjects.

Cambridge actually abandoned its own entrance papers in 1987, followed by Oxford in 1995. At that time, the universities were responding to pressure from some headteachers who were arguing that the system unfairly advantaged carefully-coached students from the independent sector. They also argued that preparation for these entrance papers took too much time out of A Level studies. Now we seem to be contemplating putting the clock back and creating these iniquities all over again.

(4) After all this, it is something of a relief to turn to the current debate about positive proposals for a reform of the public examinations system.

In January, the Government launched a major review of qualifications for students aged fourteen to nineteen, to be carried out by Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools. At the time of the launch, David Miliband criticised those who talked of reform in terms of the lowering of standards: ‘It is a credo suited to the 19th and not the 21st century, a credo of weeding people out of education, rather than supporting them to succeed. Our challenge is to show that the potential of all our young people can be realised. They will not all achieve the same; but they can all achieve their potential’ (reported in The Times Educational Supplement, 24 January 2003).

Mike Tomlinson’s initial proposals, which were published on the 16 July, included plans for a broad ‘baccalaureate-style’ diploma at four levels of difficulty. The entry level would be equivalent to the standard expected at fourteen; foundation level would be the same as the lower grades at GCSE. The Intermediate Diploma would be roughly equal to five GCSE passes at Grade C or above; and the Advanced Level would be roughly equivalent to existing A Levels.

The Tomlinson plan did not explicitly call for the abolition of GCSEs and A Levels, but simply presented that as one of two options. Alternatively, the old examinations could survive as component parts of a single diploma, rather than as free-standing qualifications.

The publication of these initial proposals signalled the start of an important debate on an English Bac. But this debate has to be about more than the ‘scrapping’ of A Levels and GCSEs and the precise structure of an inclusive system of diplomas from entry to advanced level. Among the many advantages claimed for the Bac, it is argued that it will broaden sixth-form studies, improve parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses and lead to more young people obtaining worthwhile qualifications.

Writing in The Times Educational Supplement of the 15 August, Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours argued that reform of fourteen-to-nineteen qualifications was not merely about widening access to higher education: ‘The aim of an English Bac is not simply to funnel more young people into university, but also to improve vocational education so that more fourteen-to-nineteen year-olds will become the highly skilled workers our economy needs. … A major challenge is to provide a curriculum and qualifications ‘climbing frame’ from fourteen-plus to motivate more young people to continue learning, rather than dropping out.’

Back in 1990, David Miliband was one of the authors of A British Baccalauréat, a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) advocating a new, unified system of education and training leading to a single ‘Advanced Diploma’ or ‘British Baccalauréat’. It is good to see that there is at least one leading New Labour figure who has not abandoned all his ideals on assuming high office.

Clyde Chitty

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