When Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education in 2010, it was soon clear that he was looking to make a name for himself. He had listened to universities who were complaining that school leavers were embarking on degrees with less subject knowledge than had been the case in the past. Both GCSE and A Level were blamed for this: the examination system had allegedly been ‘dumbed down’ over more than two decades since GCSE was introduced in 1988.
Is it true that ‘dumbing down’ had occurred? ‘Possibly’ would be my response. Certainly, significant grade inflation has taken place over the past 25 years. In 1988, 21% of GCSEs were graded A or B; in 2015, the statistic for A*- B (A* was introduced in 1994) was 43% – in other words, top grades have doubled in this time. Similarly, in 1991, 11.9% of A Levels were graded A, whereas the statistic in 2015 was 25.9%. Teachers are divided about whether the syllabuses are actually easier. In my subject, Modern Languages, the exams test very different skills to those I took, but I personally think I would have found the current A Levels just as tough. In Maths and the sciences, however, there is more evidence that some difficult content has been dropped and therefore one might conclude that the syllabus is ‘easier’. In any case, many more top grades are awarded so high grades are certainly easier to come by. Anyone reading this who is an employer will know how difficult it is to compare applicants’ exam results. One does not just have to look at the grades, but also at the year in which they were attained; most of us in education would agree that a C grade from 1980 is worth more than one achieved now.
Gove’s two main ambitions were to make qualifications tougher, (i) to enable students to be better prepared for higher study, and (ii) to end grade inflation so that universities and employers could reliably compare candidates’ achievements over time. In order to achieve this, he was convinced that tinkering with the current system was insufficient. Instead, he would have to take the existing regime apart and start again … and this is what has happened! Critics, including me, would say that the government has made the changes too quickly. Reform has been staggered, with core subjects (Maths, English, sciences) prioritised which means that pupils sitting exams between 2016 and 2018 will study a combination of ‘old’ and ‘reformed’ qualifications, whether at GCSE or A Level.
A Level changes
In 2000, A Levels were split in two. Students took AS examinations in the Lower Sixth (Year 12), which contributed 50% to the total A Level grade. A2 exams followed at the end of the Upper Sixth and also contributed 50%. This system allowed students to re-sit examinations once (or even twice) in an attempt to improve their grade. Gove disagreed whole-heartedly with this, and decided to return to A Levels being a one-off exam at the very end of the Sixth Form.
Gove was impatient for change, but it soon became clear that the exam awarding bodies couldn’t move as quickly as he wanted them to. Rather than waiting longer to introduce the new exams in one go, the government decided that their introduction would be staggered between 2015 and 2017.
Introduction of ‘new’ linear A Levels (all exams sat at the end of the course)
|From September 2015||From September 2016||From September 2017|
|first A Level exam 2017||first A Level exam 2018||first A Level exam 2019|
|French / German / |
Design and Technology
All subjects will be linear from September 2017 which will be a relief to parents of sons in Year 11 and below, who will start with a fully reformed system. I will be writing later this term to confirm how we will be responding to the dawn of national A Level clarity.
Although my colleagues and I did not necessarily feel that there was much wrong with the old A Levels, there has been widespread dissatisfaction with GCSE. GCSE adopted ‘controlled assessments’ about a decade ago, where students spend weeks writing lengthy assessments in lessons rather than actually being taught. Loughborough Grammar School, has, in common with most independent schools, reacted by electing to follow IGCSE courses in several subjects, because we believe them to be better preparation for A Level. I should stress that it is IGCSE, not iGCSE – in other words, it has not been created by Steve Jobs; the ‘I’ stands for International, because it was first developed for this market. GCSE and IGCSE are equally acceptable in the eyes of universities and employers.
Gove recognized the weakness of GCSE, and the changes to subject syllabi address these weaknesses and provide better foundations for future study. As a consequence, many subjects at LGS are considering moving back to the new GCSE qualifications as they are now at a similar level to the international version.
Once again, the introduction of these new exams is being staggered. The new English GCSE started in September 2015, while the majority of others have begun this term with the incoming Year 10. Because these new exams are supposed to be more challenging, the government has decided to break the link with the previous grading system. Instead of letters, we now have a numerical system, and the intention is that there should be no more grade inflation, so that the performance of students can be compared accurately from year to year. The table below shows how the new numerical system compares with the previous letter grades:
|Old||A*||A* / A||A||B||B / C||C||D / E||E / F||F / G|
Previously, the national target was for candidates to achieve 5 grades A*-C. Although C is equivalent to the new grade 4, the minimum target has now been raised to grade 5. Although this will not affect the majority of Loughburians, we can expect that, in the future, fewer 16 year olds will meet national targets. Newspapers in August 2018 will be full of the story of pupils’ performance going down!
I have done my best to explain the changes, and the rationale for them, and sincerely hope that I have not confused anyone further in the meantime. All Parents’ Evenings of the year groups affected by these changes will have presentations on this topic, but please do not hesitate to ask questions before then via your son’s form tutor in the first instance.