The Telegraph, 19.01.17, once upon a time there was there was a world where attitudes towards public examinations were very different. I remember it with a certain fondness because it was simple writes Chair of HMC’s Academic Policy Committee Peter Hamilton, Headmaster of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School.
Back then it was fine to end an A-level course of study with a flush of BBB grades…good enough for almost any university and any course. Grades were commonly believed to be accurate. Happily, there was only one method of marking and it was understood by all; oh for the days when everyone could see that a simple numerical score of 98 on a paper was better than a score of 89.
Since then, less certain times have followed during which only the best marks seems good enough for universities, confidence in exam marking has plummeted and any mark between 71 and a 100 has been badged as an A/A* grade.
And guess what, there is more – much more – to come. You have probably heard that those pesky people who run our education system have changed the GCSE exam grades from letters (A* to G) to numbers (1-9). And that’s not all. Not all subjects are moving over at once, there is no clear way of equating the old and new grades and despite efforts at explanation, the exam regulator’s own research shows that confusion is reigning. Ironic really, that those in charge of our exam system have produced work which stands accused of being over-complicated and badly explained.
At the same time, the exams themselves are changing – becoming more “rigorous” according to the Department for Education. And if that weren’t enough to grasp, schools’ own performance is being measured by a whole new set of metrics (the progress pupils make instead of just exam grades achieved.) Whilst all these changes have a rationale, bringing them all in at once seems to be asking for trouble.
However, pupils, parents, teachers, governors, universities and employers all need to understand what’s going on and it is the task of us teachers to explain things. So here are some of the answers to questions my pupils and parents have been rightly asking.
What’s happening when? This summer, the first GCSEs (Maths and English only) are to be graded nine to one (with nine being the highest grade). Plus, those particular exams are also being made more difficult. Meanwhile, the old letter grades will remain for all other subjects. In 2018 it will be numbers for Maths and English plus the next set of newly-changed exams, with letters for the remainder. By 2019 all exams will be changed and graded by the 1-9 system.
How do the grades compare and how will universities and employers respond? The letter and number grading systems have been deliberately designed not to be directly comparable. Grade nine is not – repeat not – an A*. It is essentially an A** in comparison to the old system. Far fewer candidates will achieve this new grade – only about 20 percent of all those who get grade seven or above.
Broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade seven and above as achieved the old grade A and above and broadly the same proportion will achieve a grade four and above as currently achieve a grade C and above. The bottom of grade one will be aligned with the bottom of grade G. And if that weren’t enough to take in, don’t forget that the standards of the new exams will be different anyway so no one is quite sure how they will compare. Certainly not me.
What does that mean for pupils taking GCSEs this year and next? Those students will have very mixed portfolios for life. This summer’s 16 year olds may have qualifications in a new Maths exam at grade eight, an old French exam at grade B, plus International or IGCSEs in anything else graded A.
This will make it difficult for employers, universities and other higher education establishments to understand what they are looking at, let alone how to value it. Those who took their exams in 2017 and 2018 will always have anomalous results, but there is some good news. Although the new GCSEs are harder, the exam regulator Ofqual has promised to ensure that no more students will fail (whatever that exactly means in the new system) and will not be disadvantaged compared to those who took their exams in 2016. It’s what the exam regulator calls ‘comparable outcomes.’ Let’s see.
Won’t it add to the stress of those taking the exams? It could but we must all ensure it doesn’t. It will be most important that students do not put themselves, or allow parents and teachers to put them, under extra pressure to achieve that elusive grade nine. A* students should be aiming for an eight and give extra cheers for an elusive nine if it turns up. Equally, the most demanding universities - those oversubscribed for degrees in medicine et alia - must not inflate even further the extraordinary high grades they are already demanding (if not finally accepting).
The same applies at the all-important old style ‘C’ grade, the passport to so many post-16 as well as post-18 courses. The prospect of teenagers already struggling with fragile mental health being further damaged by unnecessary pressures to achieve even higher grades is deeply disturbing and must be avoided at all costs. And this very clearly applies to all schools incidentally, not just independent ones.
Anything else? Well, there’s the question of how all this will pan out in school performance indicators and in inspections. But that’s enough headaches for now.
There will of course be magic and mystery worked, I am sure, to ensure that all these changes at least seem to be a success. Doubtless we shall all muddle through somehow…but my heart goes out though for all the boys and girls in all the schools and colleges who have become part of the experiment. Let us hope it works.
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