TALKING HEADS Part 2: What Harrogate district heads think of GCSE reforms

82 per cent of Harrogate primary children reach level four in reading, writing, and maths.
82 per cent of Harrogate primary children reach level four in reading, writing, and maths.

GCSEs have been the test of a secondary school student’s education for 26 years.

Significant changes to these exams have been coming down to schools from the government since 2012 when coursework began to be phased out.

Knaresborough King James's School headteacher Carl Sugden.

Knaresborough King James's School headteacher Carl Sugden.

At this time modular assessments were also replaced by an exam at the end of the two years of Key Stage 4 - known as terminal examinations.

Now, schools are preparing for a number of further changes to be implemented from next year and below seven headteachers across the district have their say about the effect of these dramatic adjustments on their students.

Designed to make testing more ‘rigorous’ and to stretch students, the former Education Secretary Michael Gove has said these changes will address ‘the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down.’

English and maths exams will be subject to this ambitious move from September 2015, with modern languages, history, geography, and the sciences to follow in 2016.

Harrogate Ladies' College headteacher Sylvia Brett.

Harrogate Ladies' College headteacher Sylvia Brett.

From the summer of 2017 the way GCSEs are graded will also change radically in a shift away from the recognised A*-C grades to a numerical system, ranking results from nine (being the best) to one.

It has been revealed that this measure from Ofqual will mean fewer than three per cent of students could achieve the top mark.

A Department for Education spokesman told the Harrogate Advertiser: “We are reforming GCSEsso young people can be confident that they are taking high-quality exams that will equip them with the skills most in demand by universities and employers so they are prepared for life in modern Britain.

“We believe it is right that changes are made as soon as possible to benefit the most young people, and we are confident that all the reforms can be implemented within our planned time frame which is a testament to the dedication of our high-quality teaching profession.”

Rossett head Helen Woodcock

Rossett head Helen Woodcock

Tadcaster Grammar School and Outwood Academy, Ripon were approached for a comment but did not provide one.

Knaresborough King James’ School head Carl Sugden said: “If I was to pick one thing that I think we have really lost it would be speaking and listening as part of the English exam and I just think that if we are looking at what makes success in English, it has got to include all elements of the subject.

“Losing that has been a big deal because the spoken word and how we communicate is a critical part of how we operate in the world of work and universities.

“In terms of terminal assessment I would argue that, okay, maybe too many resits is not a great thing, but life is not terminally assessed - everything doesn’t fall by your capacity to retain knowledge of two years and explode it into an exam at the end.

Ashville College head Mark Lauder

Ashville College head Mark Lauder

“I think the government has been obsessed with this word ‘rigour’, and there is nothing wrong with that - it is a good thing to say we have a rigorous exam system which tests and challenges our students, so I have no problem with that, but we have got to make sure we don’t design a system that is just based on testing rigour.

“That is not dumbing down, but I just think we have become so obsessed that we have lost sight of vocational and applied elements of learning and I think it is those two parts that are at risk of being pushed out.

“I have no problem with the one to nine, that doesn’t really matter, but unfortunately we are going to go through a phase where some students are examined under the old system and some under the new system and that is going to be confusing, especially for employers.”

Harrogate Ladies’ College head Sylvia Brett said: “I think there is a challenge in a linear exam for GCSE students which is both exciting and a challenge.

“Having the opportunity to do a linear exam means there is a possibility of learning at a greater depth because you are not just moving onto the next exam and that is an exciting proposition.

“But then it is a paper that you sit in June, so there is less practice towards it and less opportunity to resit things.

Nidderdale High School headteacher Ian Simpson.

Nidderdale High School headteacher Ian Simpson.

“Coursework at its best is a wonderful opportunity, but the problem of the league tables and external media pressure is that it is viewed by some as a chance for a child who is quite weak to do quite well and that is the challenge of coursework - how much they are being helped at home or in school.

“I worry about talk of dumbing down, because children have worked their socks off to achieve what they have achieved. The style of exams has changed very significantly and it has seemed to me to have become much more about offering a specific answer to enable the person marking the paper to tick the right boxes, so there is less opportunity to allow creativity of thought.

“In some ways that is much harder, but it can also inhibit really bright children from that flourish and flare which may not tick the relevant box.”

Rossett School head Helen Woodcock said: “The student is the one constant in times of educational change: ministers and political parties come and go. The role of any school, in response to the most recent changes to the way that students are to be assessed, is the same as it ever was - we have to minimise the impact of the uncertainty about grades and ensure that parents and the wider community understand the new system.

“GCSE changes that do not rely on the constant assessment of students through a programme of modular and coursework-style assignments, and the curtailing of early entry, means that we are returning to a system of final exams that will be familiar to many people in their 40s and above. This will be the most significant cultural change.

“The challenges for the teaching profession are the speed, complexity, and phased nature of these changes and the redefinition of what will constitute a top grade. It is challenging for schools to concentrate on raising the bar for achievement whilst wrestling with the fact that we have been told, for example, that fewer students will achieve the new gold standard of a nine – roughly half of those who would have been awarded an A* previously.

“At Rossett we have always concentrated on the progress that students make from their individual starting points and this approach has resulted in excellent outcomes. The educational reforms will not change what we do, just how we do it.”

Ashville College head Mark Lauder said: “Like most heads I view the intention behind these changes as broadly welcome given that they aim to produce a rigorous and reliable exam system and to me these changes have seemed inevitable given the criticism and concerns expressed in recent years by teachers and politicians alike.

“The key is to achieve a balanced system which rewards the hard work of students yet also allows universities and employers to make some kind of distinction based on an academic performance which they are finding increasingly difficult to do, so I cautiously welcome the changes but will watch them closely to ensure that our students are well served by them. At Ashville we alreadyallow our departments to follow the curriculum that has the most rigour and which is therefore a better preparation for A Level success and consequently university preparation. In teaching terms I think the profession will take this in its stride – our teachers will welcome any change which provides a more robust system.

“Where I am concerned however will be in the marking and internal procedures of the exam boards and we will again have to remain vigilant about the standards being applied and the transparency the new exams will operate under.”

Nidderdale High School head Ian Simpson said: “The major effect is in terms of forecasting our grades and we have to put children in exam conditions more often than we previously did so we know how they are going to perform in those controlled conditions.

“This means they have pretty much got one chance to get the grades, so they need to perform equally as well under exam conditions and I think we had lost that in schools.

“I don’t think it is a better way, just a different way. Exams test a student’s ability to retain knowledge and articulate it on paper. Coursework tested organisation skills and the ability to work hard over a sustained period of time using all the materials and information they were provided with.

“Both of those skills are relevant in their own right in terms of preparing students and it is better to have a balance.

“What GCSEs need to do is prepare students for post-16 and I think that the gap from GCSE to A level was becoming too big and that actually we do need to narrow the gap, so I can support that.

“Teachers and schools will adapt to the changes to ensure teachers know how to standardise and moderate to the new grade boundaries.

“The major challenge is that it takes a long time for the new assessment procedures to be full understood by parents and students.

“There is a challenge there to properly articulate the changes.”

Boroughbridge High School head Geoff Jenkinson said: “I think the biggest issue around linear assessment is ensuring we have sufficient high-quality markers paid at a sufficiently high level to make sure marking is robust and accurate.

“The number of papers that go across the country for remark these days is just showing the difficulty we have already, even when we are not completely linear.

“I know the linear exam can be a pressure and it can carry an element of the roulette-factor because you don’t know what questions are going to come up, but that is an element of life.

“What I would want is absolute fairness and I don’t think that is achieved because of the insufficient quality of marking.

“The change to the grading system is coming partly from the universities who want greater differentiation between gifted students. If it does make that differentiation fairly then I have no objection to it.

“Whatever is introducted we will always find some people look at it from the point of view of how is this going to sit in performance tables and how are Ofsed going to view it. If schools remember to think about what benefits students everything will be okay.”

Boston Spa School head Christopher Walsh said: “The changes have had a profound effect because our children have responded better to linear exams than they were doing to the modular.

“You want a system that allows a child to demonstrate what they know and inevitably that switch has disadvantaged some, but for many of the children in school, with the focus on a single, end of year exam they have performed better.

“I think the change in content is the biggest and most difficult challenge for schools. It will see significant curriculum reform and I imagine schools will move to a three year course to give sufficient time to cover the content.

“I speculate, but they want to make exams more rigorous and reward the very able, and that is not necessarily wrong, they are laudable goals.”

Boroughbridge High School headteacher Geoff Jenkinson

Boroughbridge High School headteacher Geoff Jenkinson

Boston Spa School headteacher Christopher Walsh.

Boston Spa School headteacher Christopher Walsh.