The Perse School

Easy steps to improve the public exam system

Small technical adjustments, dull detail and ongoing professional dialogue do not get politicians noticed.  An ambitious Secretary of State needs bold ideas to capture the public imagination, a national disaster to avert, or a golden age to restore.  And so Michael Gove has launched his campaign to restore rigour in education, end grade inflation, and propel Britain back up the PISA league tables of global educational performance.  I applaud his ambitions even if I doubt some of his methods.

What our public exams really need, however, is not the politically inspired big bang of simultaneous A level and GCSE reform, but some professionally driven fine tuning that improves the functioning of the current system. Let’s get the public exams system working on all cylinders before we decide whether it should be overhauled or not.

Here are five simple measures that could be introduced to make GCSE and A level work better.

1. Introduce earlier entry deadlines for exams.  With entry deadlines as late as March for May exams boards only have two months’ notice of the number of candidates sitting a paper.  This is workable in a stable situation, but once schools start moving between boards or switching qualifications exam boards can find themselves deluged with candidates at short notice.  This was the case with some IGCSEs this year.  Far better that candidates are entered six months prior to an exam, so that boards know what they are preparing for, and have time to recruit and train sufficient examiners. 

2. Work with schools to professionalise marking.  Increasingly top universities are using paper marks as well as overall grades in their admissions processes, so precise, accurate marking is essential; futures depend on it.  Most scripts are fairly marked, but some are not.  Schools need to encourage their best teachers to mark, where possible. They could consider granting leave of absence to examiners, so that they can examine free of interruptions and distractions.  (This should be possible, for example, for the schools that lose Year 11 and Upper Sixth classes in June).  Examining is a high stakes game and it is too important to be done at five in the morning or eleven at night around the demands of a full day’s teaching.

3. Reduce the minimum number of scripts that examiners have to mark.  Many boards have such a minimum limit.  In one way this makes sense as more reliable results can be achieved by fewer examiners marking more papers.  However, the minimum script requirement has meant that many experienced teachers have dropped out of the assessment process because they couldn’t complete their allocation in the time available.  These experienced teachers were not only good markers, but as experienced practising professionals they provided valuable feedback on exam questions and specifications.  Without them the exam system becomes divorced from the school system, and the potential for future problems increases.

4. The government was right to end January modules, but it is wrong to remove all public exams from the Lower Sixth year.  For many students these exams are a huge motivator that significantly increases the Lower Sixth work ethic which in turn raises academic attainment.  Lower Sixth students know they have to get things right in order to declare good AS module results on their university application forms.  Universities value Lower Sixth results as part of their selection process.  Without them they will have to fall back on selection techniques which will favour students from well-resourced schools that can provide additional preparation.  This may lead to further inequalities in university admission.  However, in keeping AS and A2 the boards should invert their timing.  With no January modules to interrupt teaching the Upper Sixth will be ready to sit their A levels in May.  However, Lower Sixth students would benefit from as much teaching time as possible so a late June sitting would work for them.

5. Release A level results to universities a week before they are released to students.  Currently universities get to see A level results a few days before students.  They use this time to review the cases of students who have narrowly missed their offers.  This process takes time and requires careful consideration.  Unfortunately this year a few universities have taken a long time to decide on the fate of students who narrowly missed their offers.  These students find themselves in a very unfair state of limbo where, because a university has not taken a decision, they cannot apply for places in clearing.  Instead they have to sit by and watch the best clearing options disappear before their eyes. While some of the delay this year may have been due to universities playing a tactical game to attempt to secure ‘better’ students, providing A level results to universities just a few days earlier would improve the situation.

A final thought on rigour.  Education Secretaries like to focus on the exam system because it appears a relatively easy way of influencing what happens in the classroom.  But making exams harder does not in itself raise standards. Ultimately rigour comes from teachers, and in particular inspirational staff who demand high standards from their pupils and who will not settle for second best.

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