Are our exams really dumbed down?

21 December 2010
Local Schools Network

The latest PISA results appear to indicate that the UK is slipping down the league tables in terms of literacy and numeracy. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has indicated that major reforms are needed for our exams. But I wonder if he is actually aware that major reforms have already happened to the exams system; the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority (QCDA), possibly to be defunct soon, conducted a major review into exams a few years back and instituted new ones. I am currently a few months into teaching the new English GCSE with my Year 10 class. This course, it must be remembered, has not produced any exam results and has not been assessed by PISA; it was instigated after years of painstaking research.

I am currently doing controlled assessments with my Year 10 class; they are going very well. There’s none of the dubious goings on with coursework of yesteryear because the pupils write their coursework in class; I’m finding it a good compromise. It gives pupils some time to research a topic, to develop their independent thinking and hone personal responses in ways in which exams just don’t. And yet, there’s no room for cheating. It’s also a more intellectually rigorous exam than before: I’ve been teaching some complex ideas about representation in Shakespeare and I’m now looking at the ways in which people construct their identities in speech. It’s high level stuff, which my pupils are enjoying; they’re making plays, recording each other talking, they’re writing detailed essays, they’re debating key issues. It’s going very well.

Yet Gove is saying he wants to rip it all up and start again, without giving the new GCSEs a chance. Furthermore, I think many people in the profession are beginning to lose confidence in his ability to deliver. We already know that this administration’s approach is very slip-shod; just look at the confusion over so many of their policies. The latest in an already long-line of cock-ups is the mess over the English Bacc; will community languages be allowed in it? Why is R.E (the original Humanities subject) not included? why are Latin, Classical Greek and Biblical Hebrew considered suitable languages when there are no virtually no state school teachers to deliver them? Can this administration be trusted to put on a cake sale let alone supervise a major curriculum overhaul?

Please Mr Gove, I am begging you, give these new GCSEs and A Levels a chance! They haven’t even been properly tried out. They were based on years of research and careful thought. They feel like they are a big improvement. I think many teachers agree with me. They may well be the ticket to improving our rankings in the PISA. Why get rid of them before they’ve even had a chance?

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