Examinations – A muted response to GCSE successor

In an article in the TES, 07/06/13, HMC's General Secretary, Dr William Richardson responds to reports that a new tougher 'I level' exam will replace GCSE's in England.

The long saga of reforming England's most widely taken school exam, the GCSE, took another twist this week as proposals emerged for yet another name change, along with details of how much tougher the qualification could become.

A report in The Times newspaper, neither confirmed nor denied by the government or the exams regulator as TES went to press, said that GCSEs (sat by students aged 15-16) would become Intermediate Levels, or I levels for short.

In the reformed qualification - to be introduced in English, mathematics, history, geography and the sciences from 2015 - lettered ABC grades will be replaced with a numerical system. The top grade will be an 8 - allowing room for grades 9 or even 10 in later years if needed - with grade 1 at the bottom. The bar is to be significantly raised, with many current A*- and A-grade students expected to achieve only grades 6 or 7.

That is likely to increase pressure on students, schools and teachers to perform, although it could make life easier for universities that use GCSE results to help them decide which students to admit. That could include the University of Oxford, which said it has "found GCSEs to be an important way to measure a candidate's ability and a good predictor of students' performance in university final examinations".

But Mike Nicholson, the university's director of undergraduate admissions, warned: "There are some clear concerns over the timetable for introduction of the new qualifications in England, with both A-level and GCSE reforms taking place in parallel for a 2015 start date, and the growing dislocation between English, Welsh and Northern Irish qualifications."

William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents elite private schools whose students might be expected to benefit from a system of tougher top grades, gave the idea a qualified welcome.

"It will only work if the exam boards change their approach to marking," he said. They would need to abandon rigid safety-first tactics and allow examiners more discretion in the way they award top marks, particularly in essay subjects, he added.

The UK's other countries are not following the exam reform agenda, begun by England's education secretary Michael Gove a year ago. Since then, he has proposed that the reformed exams be named English Baccalaureate Certificates, before reverting to the GCSE title in February this year. It now appears that he has changed his mind again, apparently to differentiate I levels from the GCSEs that will remain in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mr Gove has also abandoned his plans for an exam franchising system that would have put single exam boards in charge of individual subjects, and the latest leak suggests that he has admitted defeat on his previous insistence that the qualifications would be single-tier. It was reported that the foundation and higher-level papers will remain in mathematics and science.

But coursework will largely disappear in the first I levels, restricted to 10 per cent of marks for practical experiments in science, according to this week's report. And resits will be drastically reduced and confined to the summer, apart from additional mathematics and English sittings in November.

Click here to read the article © TES.