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GCSE reforms: A dual consultation

A return to final examinations, an emphasis on our national history and Shakespeare, and a new marking system. The Government has unveiled a symphony of reforms to the way GCSE examinations are conducted in England. With the Government’s aim to make GCSE’s comparable to equivalent overseas qualifications, it is arguable that this is the most significant package of reforms since GCSEs replaced O-levels 30 years ago.

The views of schools, teachers, parents and young people are now being sought by the Government in order to gauge the suitableness and appropriateness of the proposed changes. A dual consultation process has been opened, with both the Department for Education and Ofqual launching consultations this month.

Department for Education: Consultation on GCSE Subject Content

The Department for Education’s reformed GCSE subject content consultation document asks questions on the proposed content for English language, English literature, mathematics, science, history, geography, modern languages and ancient languages.

The consultation asks general and subject specific questions concerning whether the proposed content for GCSEs meets the Government’s standards for what they hope would be a demanding and fulfilling course of study for pupils. The main areas of the consultation will be:

  • The appropriateness of subject content and assessment objectives;
  • The relative weighting of assessment objectives;
  • Progress of subject content from earlier stages;
  • Progress to further academic and vocational study;
  • Impact on specific people groups, including those with “protected characteristics” in equality legislation;
  • Literacy and numeracy coverage in the English and Mathematics curricula.

Although the main consultation document only discusses the key subjects at a rather high level or in summary form, there are subject specific mini consultation documents available on the Department for Education’s web site. The consultation window is quite short, closing on 20 August 2013.

Ofqual GCSE Reform Consultation

Running in parallel to the Department for Education’s consultation, is Ofqual’s consultation, which focuses more on the design and regulatory aspects of the proposed changes to GCSEs taken by pupils in England. Ofqual, being responsible for making sure that the reforms to GCSEs fulfil their purposes, and provide valid and reliable results, begins its consultation paper by discussing its general design principles and setting out its preferred options for implementation. It then goes on to provide detail on its intentions of how it will apply those principles to each of the different subjects currently under review. There is also a section on equality, in which Ofqual lists the ways in which any proposed changes may affect various minority and protected groups. School representatives, teachers and parents are of course invited to respond to Ofqual’s consultation, and there is a form to do so at the end of the paper online.

The focus for Ofqual’s design principles is on the following aspects of the GCSEs:

  • Whether the subjects should be tiered;
  • Whether there should be written exams;
  • Whether there should be any coursework (non-exam assessments);
  • What the minimum exam time should be;
  • Whether there should be any assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

English literature, for example, is proposed as a non-tiered subject, with written exams, no coursework, a minimum exam time of 3.5 hours and including an assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar equating to 5% of the overall grade given. Mathematics is also proposed to be an exam only subject, but is proposed to be tiered. The sciences on the other hand are proposed as tiered subjects to be assessed with 10% coursework and 90% written exams. The proportion of non-exam assessments even here is significantly lower than the current status quo.

Below are some of Ofqual’s key design principles, which would be applied to the various GCSE subjects as set out above:

  • Qualifications should take roughly the same amount of time to study as current GCSEs;
  • Qualifications should only be tiered if (a) single tiered study and assessment would not be able to simultaneously stretch the most able pupils and allow pupils at the lower end of the ability range to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding in a particular subject, and (b) if content that would be exclusive to the higher tier is easily identifiable;
  • Subjects should primarily be assessed by way of exams, with coursework kept to an absolute minimum;
  • Assessments would be taken in the summer only (except for resits in English language and mathematics);
  • The A* to E achievement scale would be replaced by an grading scale of 8 to 1.

The consultation paper, together with all of its associated documents, is available online, and submissions are now being accepted until the closing date of 3 September 2013.

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