Experiences of the new GCSEs and A levels, the story so far...

Blog
06 June 2018 by Jill Stokoe
This summer, more new GCSEs and A levels will be awarded for the first time. Last summer, we ran a survey to get a clearer picture about our members’ experiences of the new exams so far. The results were not surprising, given (as our members said) the speed with which the reforms to the qualifications were rushed through.

The new GCSE courses are, in many cases, too big to teach in two years. We know that schools are now running three or even four-year Key Stage 4 curriculum phases to fit in all the GCSE content. This increase in the time needed to teach is because the level of demand in subject content has increased. One teacher said, “(it has increased) hugely, there is now a massive amount of content in GCSE History.” Another said, “Students would be better off studying a smaller range of topics and having the time to explore and enjoy them. As things stand we feel we are having to race every lesson. There is no time for reflection. Despite what the new head of Ofsted has recently said we are slaves to the exam!”

When we asked whether the course you teach is deliverable in the time available, over half said no; one said, “At present, we have a 3-year GCSE ... if, as I previously taught it, was 2 years, it would be almost impossible to get any depth of knowledge about each topic.” Another commented, “We are teaching the GCSE triple Science course in the curriculum time of the double award, so 3 GCSES in the curriculum time of 2. The effect of this is significant pressure on both teachers and pupils. There is too much content for lessons we are permitted, given the prescriptive nature of the exams. They need a lot of test practice that erodes teaching time.”

It's a huge amount of work, and teachers are still not certain they are doing it right

 

A common complaint was that, whilst some of the teaching material can be recycled or adapted, a lot of it is brand new and has to be delivered differently. It's a huge amount of work, and teachers are still not certain they are doing it right. One said, “I've had to speed up, dumb down and remove practical work beyond essentials. I'm being expected to teach to the test and ignore enrichment.”

Students' experiences of the reformed GCSEs have affected their choice of A Level courses - “the narrowing of options and more focus on academic examination than vocational experience has really impacted student choice”, a teacher said.

The new A level courses are assessment by ambush; it’s one shot and you’re out and that is obviously very stressful for students

 

Teachers told us that there has been a significant increase in uptake of science and maths A-level by students whose abilities are not really appropriate for A-level in those subjects. They are not able to drop these subjects after one year when it is already beginning to dawn on them, because they no longer take a fourth AS level in Year 12. Those departments are expecting a higher number of U grades (previously unheard of) this summer. The new A level courses are assessment by ambush; it’s one shot and you’re out and that is obviously very stressful for students.

Making grade predictions has been like sticking the tail on the donkey

 

We asked whether teachers would be able to set students target and predicted grades this year with confidence, 74% said no to target grades and 58% said no to predicted grades. One respondent said, “We are working pretty much in the dark. We do not really know what a level 9-1 level looks like. Trying to pitch our marks and grades targets is virtually impossible. Pupils, teachers and parents are all in a big lab experiment!”

Another said, “Making grade predictions has been like sticking the tail on the donkey. Teachers feel really bad that they are unable to give students an idea of what grade they are on track to receive. They feel that their professionalism and their care for their students is being diminished by their lack of confidence.”

What’s the point in having a standard and a strong pass, why not just stick with grade 4 as the new pass grade?

 

And there is still a great deal of confusion out there about what counts as a pass in practical terms (i.e. for getting into college) and what the government counts as a pass.

In the new grading system, the grade 4 is roughly equivalent to the grade C, the current ‘good pass’, however, DfE had said that a grade 5 - the equivalent of a high C or low B, would be seen in future as the “good pass” therefore the pass hurdle would have become higher for students.

In a nifty U-turn, Government changed its mind and decided, in its wisdom, to introduce grade 4 as the “standard pass” and grade 5 as the “strong pass”. How helpful is that? What’s the point in having a standard and a strong pass, why not just stick with grade 4 as the new pass grade?

So, what we now have is that schools are going to be judged on the number of pupils who achieve a grade 5 or better in English and maths and in the EBacc, whilst grade 4 will be considered enough for pupils to progress to sixth forms and colleges, depending on their entry requirements.

To add to the confusion, the Government's intention is that from 2019, pupils who don't achieve at least a grade 5 in English and maths will have to re-sit them in a sixth-form or college. The GCSE re-sit policy has already had an impact on the overall results for English and maths GCSEs, as last year nearly 40% of re-sit students didn’t achieve A*-C.

We wait with bated breath to see what impact these changes have had on students, when the results come out in August.

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