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What reforms in A-level and GCSE testing will mean

PUBLISHED: 16:05 01 September 2015

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Controversial changes to A-levels and GCSEs come into force this year. One deputy head thinks the changes are wholly good but he remains cautious about how the old will merge with the new

Originally published in A+ Education South East Autumn 2015

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Shortly after the General Election in May, Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, sent a message to the 24,372 schools in England offering encouraging words to half a million or more teachers and committed to “a period of calm and stability in the education sector”. Some observers might have thought it remarkable that this promise should come before the pledge to “invest in teachers and school leaders”.

They might also have been surprised that the raising of educational standards was implied rather than explicit in this communication. Such surprise, however, would not take account of the massive changes that were previously launched by Ms Moran’s predecessor, Michael Gove – change now starting to impact upon the education of young people in England.

So, how will the education of today’s generation of school pupils differ? At A-level, the split of the sixth form programme into two – AS and A2 will be abandoned, and, instead, we will return to the straight-through, two-year courses, familiar to those who completed their school education in the previous century. AS exams will remain, but they will be standalone qualifications and, at the moment, it is unclear what purpose they will serve, other than to provide nervous teachers with something that is familiar.

At GCSE, we will no longer have A, B or C grades, but will instead have numerical indicators of levels reached, from 1 to 9 (9 will be the highest grade, and will be regarded as being in advance of the current A* grade). All GCSEs will be linear, meaning that there will be no units taken early.

There will be no coursework, except in those practical subjects, such as art. Exams will, therefore, become more vital than is currently the case. Most subjects will still be taught, and examined, to the same level, but maths will be made more difficult.

Different opinions are available but many in the teaching profession broadly welcome these changes. The existence of important AS exams, and the possibility of taking GCSE units early, at the end of year 10, meant that it was wholly possible for pupils to find themselves on a treadmill of public exams for each of their last four years at school.

Coursework has its benefits, but, like bindweed, it can take over, suffocating real learning. Maths should be harder at GCSE level. These are changes for the better.

The fun starts when one considers the way in which these reforms are to be introduced: piece by piece. In the coming academic year, ‘new’ A-levels will be available in English and the sciences, while those who study French or geography will remain in the ‘old’ system until 2016 (and mathematicians will need to wait until 2017). There is a similar phasing with the new GCSE courses which will mean that old and new will exist in possibly inharmonious co-existence. For some, the prospect of such gradual change is worrying, hence Nicky Morgan’s desire to be seen to be advocating stability.

Good schools, and good teachers, will embrace the changes. Good schools will be used to dealing with a variety of different qualifications anyway. They will be teaching BTEC and Pre-U courses alongside A-levels, and IGCSEs alongside conventional GCSEs. They will recognise that finding the right course for a group of students does not always mean that everybody should be doing the same thing, in the same way. Since 2009, it has been my pleasure to teach the Cambridge Pre-U course in English Literature – something that looks, in many ways, rather like an old-fashioned A-level (and thus, too, the new A-level).

It works, well, just as the new courses will work, well, if they are well taught, well planned, and well organised. And so long as the Secretary of State lives up to her pledge to allow things to take root.

John Tuson, Academic Deputy Head, Bede’s

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