Saturday, 19 June 2010

"More flexibility in the exams system": a double-edged sword?

The Coalition Government has committed itself "to create more flexibility in the exams system" [See The Coalition: our programme for government; 26 Schools]. I believe that any deregulation of the examination system should be used to drive up academic standards, rather than to create a vehicle for competition between examination boards.

Flexibility to stretch the brightest

In an effort to maintain academic standards at KS4, Independent Schools have migrated towards the International GCSEs [iGCSEs] over the past five years. That these schools have done this particularly in the core subjects of Maths, Science and English is evidence that these are the areas where the Labour Government's intervened most to dumb down the curriculum. The announcement that state school pupils will be able to sit is good news for both the Maintained and Independent Sectors.

The top State schools, especially the surviving State Grammars, have campaigned to be allowed to sit these more rigorous examinations, but were prevented from doing so by the previous Secretary of State, lest it highlight the deficiencies of the new GCSE specifications. Michael Gove, who is more open to acknowledging that Maintained sector schools can learn much from our world-class schools in the Independent Sector, has opened up the iGCSE to all.

It is good news, too, for Independent Schools. If we are to have a two-tier examination system of "more academic" iGCSEs and "less academic" GCSEs, it is well that that two-tier system transcends both the Independent and Maintained Sectors as it takes away any potential for discriminating against pupils from our sector, say, in University applications.

Flexibility to create new attractive products for the marketplace

Whilst some aspects of the deregulation of GCSEs are clearly welcome, but I am not sure that there should be a free-for-all. I am deeply concerned by the proposal from AQA that boys and girls could be able to sit different GCSEs.

The statement by Bill Alexander, AQA's director of curriculum and assessment, to the TES outlines the rationale:
“We could offer a route for boys that is very different to a route for girls. Girls tend to perform better with coursework while boys do better with end-of-year exams. So we are pursuing that in science to see if we could have an option in science where we might have a straightforward examination for boys but a possibility of having a coursework option for girls.”
But how his statement goes on is more revealing:
“We are looking to do something different where there is a need in the market.

“The current GCSE criteria don’t allow coursework, but if we have now got flexibility and freedom to develop alternative products then that is what we will want to use our expertise to produce.”

Here lies one of the key problems with the British examination system, namely that we have three Awarding Bodies who are in competition with each other. Exams have become "products" in the "market". Schools inevitably choose products that will improve their results. The way that our examination system is structured at present only serves to perpetuate the year-on-year grade inflation. I am not sure that we should be giving the Exam Boards greater flexibility to make exams any easier.

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