Education in brief: are GCSEs the new O-levels?

Education in brief: are GCSEs the new O-levels?

guardian.co.uk |July 9, 2012

  • Warwick Mansell
Pupils sit GCSE exams in a school hall

Exams: should they be GCSEs or O-levels? Photograph: Jim Wileman/Alamy

GCSEs: the new O-levels?

Michael Gove’s leaked plans to reintroduce O-levels to schools, seemingly inspired by the success of an “international” version of the exam operated by one of England’s big three exam boards and taken by teenagers in Singapore, rightly made headlines last month.

But less noticed has been a move by another of the boards, Edexcel, quietly to scrap its own version of the exam three years ago.

Edexcel, owned by Pearson, replaced its International O-levels with its existing International GCSE brand. Intriguingly, a 2009 document for teachers explaining the move described the IGCSE as “the most up-to-date qualification from the UK” and “the same [as O-level] but with modern references”.

How very off-message. Speed Read wonders what Mr Gove thinks. A Pearson spokeswoman says: “The demand internationally is for qualifications which reflect the UK curriculum. With the introduction of the GCSE, the demand shifted to IGCSE, rather than international versions of an old qualification.”

Cheats’ charter

Confirmation came last week, in Peter Wilby’s interview in these pages with Ofqual’s chief executive, Glenys Stacey, that exam board seminars in which senior examiners give teachers advice on how to boost their pupils’ grades are being banned. These advice sessions were, of course, the backdrop to a series of undercover scoops in the Daily Telegraph last December. But is this the end of the matter?

In 2009, BBC Radio Five Live reported on controversial advice being given to teachers at a seminar run not by a board, but privately, by a former languages examiner who guided his attendees on how to “script” pupils’ answers in the oral section of French GCSE.

Would such seminars be banned? Ofqual’s powers are limited, it seems; it says it only has powers to regulate the work of “awarding organisations”, or the boards themselves. So while “face-to-face seminars that relate directly to specific, named qualifications” and are run by the boards themselves will cease from next year, there is no such stipulation on those hosted by private organisations. A loophole, perhaps?

A positive outlook

A fascinating insight into the darker arts of education public relations is provided on the website of the firm Communitas. The company, based in Battersea, south London, sets out how it has secured positive news coverage for its clients, many of them academies.

West London academy, which opened in 2003, had “significant reputation and messaging challenges to overcome in the local community”, Communitas tells readers, not least after Ofsted expressed serious concerns about management and pupil behaviour there two years later.

The company therefore launched a strategy to “limit the damage from the worst critical comments in the report”, and proceeded to “work the media”.

At Eastbourne academy in Darlington, where it created a new “brand identity” for the school, Communitas says “early challenges were around staff management issues that needed delicate and skilled management to avoid unwelcome press coverage”, while the section on Shirebrook academy in Derbyshire says Communitas’s emphasis was to make the consultation process as “easy as possible”, as “creating this ease is particularly vital for communications with any vocal minority who may be unsure about the … founding of an academy”.

Is this a good use of public money? Maybe Speed Read needs a good “working” before we are convinced.

Exam regulator in the front line

Exam regulator in the front line

guardian.co.uk |July 2, 2012

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, the exams regulator

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, says: ‘If we moved to a single exam board, the transitional risks would be very significant’. Photograph: Andrew Fox

When foot and mouth disease struck Britain in 2007, Glenys Stacey was in the front line. As chief executive of Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service), her job was to ensure it didn’t spread. In that, as she proudly explains, she was successful, averting the crisis in British agriculture and tourism caused by the outbreak of 2001. “We had about a dozen outbreaks and we contained them all,” she says. We may have her to thank that meat supplies weren’t wiped out and that, when the virulent H5N1 virus was found among Suffolk turkeys, we didn’t all fall victim to avian flu.

But can she now cope with what some would describe as an outbreak of Mad Gove Disease? In March last year, she became chief executive of Ofqual, the examinations regulator. If the education secretary goes ahead with plans to scrap the GCSE, bring back O-levels and put them under a single exam board, she will have to make them work. When we meet at the Commonwealth Club in London, I ask if she knew about them before they were leaked (by Gove himself, according to some accounts)?

“We’ve known for months,” she says, “that ministers were concerned about the quality of GCSE qualifications. Our job is to give ministers wise and timely advice about how policy aims should be met and how transition can be managed without putting standards at risk. We’ve had opportunities to provide that advice.”

Which I take to be a “yes”. So what was that advice? “Significant change takes very careful planning indeed and, in that time, children are still taking exams and still need viable qualifications. We have to advise the minister on what is an achievable timetable. It depends on the details. His immediate interests are in English, maths and science. It makes sense to focus on some subjects, not all, and to choose the hard-hitting ones that affect people’s life chances.” The implication – though she won’t confirm it – is that Gove may have to rethink his ambitious timetable to scrap GCSEs by 2014.

Ofqual is answerable to parliament, not to Gove, but John Bangs, a former National Union of Teachers official, now a visiting professor at London University’s Institute of Education, says “it acts as if accountable to the secretary of state”. That view was shared by others I spoke to, but Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education at Buckingham University, was more generous: “She has brought a sharp brain and considerable political skills to the job. She briefs herself very thoroughly. She knows the world in which she has to operate. She navigates the political landscape, rather than confronting it.” The political reality, he said, is that “she may be at arm’s length from Gove, but it’s not a very long arm”.

Stacey herself says: “It’s a relationship. Government can take a policy decision on qualifications but, if it tries to change the nature of assessment, and we believe that will affect standards, it’s our obligation to say no.”

So far, there has been no overt clash. On the contrary, Stacey shares many of Gove’s concerns on GCSE and has striven “to strengthen the qualification, to get it to where it should be”. When she arrived at Ofqual, she dismissed grade inflation – the suggestion that “dumbed down” papers and more lenient marking made it easier to get top grades – as a “not very helpful expression” and argued that it could be attributable to “young people being taught well and working hard”. A year later, after looking at data that “just didn’t make sense” and discussing it with “real experts in assessment”, she said there had been “persistent grade inflation … over at least a decade” at both GCSE and A-level.

She ordered that some GCSE syllabuses be rewritten to ensure candidates cover wider ground; agreed to Gove’s demands that marks be awarded for grammar, spelling and punctuation, albeit so far only in four subjects; launched a review of “controlled assessment” (a new version of “continuous assessment”), arguing that it eats too much into teaching time; and announced a review of how GCSE results are graded. When we first talked at Ofqual’s headquarters in Coventry, two weeks before Gove’s plans were revealed, she echoed another of the minister’s concerns: the growth of non-academic GCSE courses. “Should there be a GCSE in flower arranging?” she asked. “Where is the line drawn? I don’t have a predetermined view, but at the moment the line isn’t drawn.”

On one matter on the Gove agenda – having a single exam board to set and mark GCSEs – she has seemed consistently cool. “If we moved to a single exam board,” she says, “the transitional risks would be very significant.”

For now, she says, her job is to ensure that the competitive market at GCSE and A-level operates in a “healthy” manner. Each board has an incentive to bump up pass rates so that it gets a higher share of the hefty exam entry fees. This, Gove believes, is partly responsible for grade inflation. Stacey has already banned seminars in which board representatives “coached” teachers in how to get their pupils through the exams – sometimes giving strong hints about that year’s questions – and has now begun “a very close look” at whether boards should continue publishing textbooks, which schools are naturally tempted to buy and follow slavishly. She has a new power to fine boards up to 10% of turnover for misbehaviour. Has she used it yet? “Give me a chance, we’ve only just got the power.” Has she issued any warnings? “I wouldn’t be warning them, I’d be giving notice of an intention to fine. I’m not in that position now, but I am ready.”

Stacey has a soft voice and great charm, but there is also an underlying sternness and, if I were Gove, I would be wary. She has no background in education – beyond two children and 25 years of marriage to a teacher – though she is taking an MA in educational assessment. She has spent most of her working life in important public-service jobs, yet is unknown to the public and not well-known even to practitioners in areas where she played a leading role. That may be because she has never worked in London.

Now 58, she is a living embodiment (her words) of mid-20th century social mobility. Her father was a painter and decorator, her mother a factory worker. She went to grammar school near Walsall and got “seven or eight” O-levels, but left school at 16 because that’s what people of her background did. Armed with a couple of science O-levels and (she thinks) a short skirt, she landed a job in a Royal Ordnance laboratory, quality assessing explosives. “I realised I wasn’t going to be a Nobel prizewinner, so I went to work for a local law firm, and fell into something I really enjoyed.” After taking A-levels at evening classes, she read law at Kent University before qualifying as a solicitor and working first in private practice and then for the Legal Aid Board, where she became an area manager.

Her first big job, at 43, was to set up the Criminal Cases Review Commission, created after the belated acquittals of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four on IRA bombing charges. She moved on to run the magistrates courts in Greater Manchester and, after Animal Health – the job which, to judge by the enthusiasm with which she recalls it, gave her greatest pleasure and success – she became chief executive of Standards for England, responsible for dealing with misdemeanours in local government. The latter body disappeared in the coalition government’s quango cull.

Her work there was largely about stamping out corruption. Now she is dealing with a system that Mick Waters, a former official at Ofqual’s predecessor, has described as “almost corrupt” and which has never before been properly regulated. It involves 25m exam scripts a year, 2,500 different papers, 15,000 qualifications (most of them vocational) and 180 awarding bodies. She has taken a more proactive approach to this daunting portfolio than many expected. For example, she commissioned a study of how other countries assess exams at the equivalent stage to A-level, concluding that they make far more use of teacher assessment and multiple-choice tests. On the latter front, we can expect activity.

“I have never sought a public profile,” she tells me. But before the GCSE saga is over, she will surely have one. It is impossible to believe she won’t cope.

Exam boards face fines for test paper errors

Exam boards face fines for test paper errors

BBC |May 4, 2012

By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News
_

Exam boards face multi-million pound fines for mistakes in test papers under new powers granted to the exams watchdog Ofqual.

Just days before the exam season gets under way, the regulator has given details of new sanctions – including fines of up to 10% of annual turnover.

The regulator can also order exam papers to be rewritten or ban boards from offering certain qualifications.

Fiona Pethick of Ofqual promised to “act firmly and robustly”.

The biggest exam boards have turnovers of up to £300m, so fines of 10% would be substantial.

The government says the money will go to the public purse.

Ms Pethick, Ofqual’s director of regulation said: “We want awarding organisations to provide high-quality qualifications and good levels of service.

“Our additional powers, including the power to fine, mean that when things go wrong, we have more ways in which we can sanction an awarding organisation.

“With exams starting shortly, this is a timely announcement for us as we now have our new powers in place should there be any problems during this important period.”

‘Unanswerable questions’

The move follows a series of unanswerable questions and printing errors in last summer’s A-level and GCSE exam papers, sat by 140,000 students in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

After about a dozen mistakes were found in national test papers, the government promised to have new regulatory powers, including a system of fines, ready for this summer’s exams.

Last summer’s mistakes included multiple-choice questions where all the answers were wrong, and questions which were impossible to answer because wrong information had been given.

The subjects affected were geography, maths, chemistry, biology, business studies and Latin.

Pupils vented their anger on social networking sites, with some calling for the exams to be re-staged.

At the time the exam boards apologised for the mistakes and said they were taking measures to ensure pupils would not be advantaged or disadvantaged by them.

Exam tip-off row forces ban on face-to-face seminars

Exam tip-off row forces ban on face-to-face seminars

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

Exams

The ban follows allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Examiners will be banned from conducting face-to-face seminars with teachers after an investigation by the official regulator found incidents of “serious malpractice”.

The ban, which will come into force in August 2013, follows an inquiry into allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect.

The regulator Ofqual, which examined 52 hours of audio recording handed over by the Daily Telegraph, said it did not find widespread misconduct, but “specific incidents” in which information about future exams was revealed. The newspaper sent undercover reporters to 13 seminars run for teachers by exam boards.

Under the new guidelines, face-to-face training will continue to be acceptable for teachers marking controlled assessments –supervised coursework – and for the introduction of new exam specifications. But over the next year exam boards will have to phase out seminars for named qualifications. Over 4,000 exam board seminars took place last year, with fees of up to £200 per delegate.

When the investigation was published last year, Michael Gove, the education secretary, launched a vigorous attack on the exam system. He said that exam boards had “overstepped the mark” and claimed the system was discredited.

Glenys Stacey, the chief executive of Ofqual, said: “The new rules will make sure that schools and teachers have access to the information they need to understand the exams their pupils are taking. However, they should not get privileged information by attending face-to-face events with those who set the questions.

“We know the value of teachers interacting with experts from exam boards, but we have concluded that there are better ways for information to be shared, such as live online events. These methods can easily be made available to all teachers, not just those who can attend meetings.”

Ofqual is also reviewing the role of controlled assessments in GCSEs, after teachers raised concerns about the amount of school time spent doing them. The assessments were brought in to stop parents helping children with coursework and prevent plagiarism using the internet.

Exam boards conducted their own inquiries after the newspaper investigation resulted in questions in a handful of exam papers being changed. One chief examiner was allegedly recorded by the Telegraph as saying: “We’re cheating. We’re telling you the cycle [of the compulsory question]. Probably the regulator will tell us off.”

The papers that were subsequently altered were a GCSE in ICT set by the WJEC exam board, an Edexcel design and technology GCSE, a government and politics paper and two OCR Latin papers.

The Telegraph claimed that teachers were routinely given information about future questions, relevant areas of the syllabus, and specific words or facts to use in answers.

In its report, Ofqual said: “With privileged information –the inside track – there will always be the risk that those taking part could jeopardise qualifications by saying something about what will be in a future exam paper. We know that that has happened in practice, because we have seen the evidence of it.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said: “We are disappointed that Ofqual has not consulted widely, especially with the teaching profession, in its rushed decision to end face-to-face teacher seminars. Naturally, we will continue to work with teachers to ensure that they still have access to, and are supported by, the much valued and appropriate information that we offer.”

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, owners of Edexcel, said:“We have already taken strong action to ensure that the information shared through events and other channels is always appropriate. Many of our events will be online, and all will be recorded, to enable a high degree of transparency.”

A DfE spokesman said: “It is vital that we restore confidence in our exam system. It is outrageous that privileged information was shared at some exam seminars and we welcome the action Ofqual is taking on this.

“We want all exams in England to stand comparison with, and be as rigorous as, those in the best-performing education jurisdictions.”

Meanwhile, a group of experts has warned that A-level science exams do not contain enough maths questions, and those that are asked are often too easy.

They raised concerns that papers in biology, chemistry and physics were failing to prepare teenagers to study these subjects at university or to work in related areas.

In a new report, SCORE, a group of leading science organisations including the Royal Society, calls for a review of the maths required for each of the three sciences, and new guidelines to regulate the way maths is assessed in these subjects.

A-level sciences ‘lack the maths students need’

A-level sciences ‘lack the maths students need’

BBC |April 26, 2012

By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News
_

A-level science exams do not contain enough maths questions to prepare students to progress to science degrees or related jobs, says a report.

The authors claim that even those that are asked are often too easy.

The report by a group of leading science organisations calls for a new framework to regulate the way maths is assessed within science A-levels.

The government says it wants universities to be more involved in the design and development of A-levels.

The report by Score (Science community representing education) analysed the type, extent and difficulty of the mathematics in the 2010 A-level papers for biology, chemistry and physics.

‘Worrying’

The authors said the exams failed to assess the full range of maths skills needed for the subjects.

They added that the exams often also failed to meet the requirements for A-level science qualifications set out by the exams regulator Ofqual.

Professor Graham Hutchings, chairman of Score, said: “Our findings are worrying. A significant proportion of the mathematical requirements put in place by the examinations regulator, Ofqual, for each of the sciences were simply not assessed and, if they were, it was often in a very limited way.”

The report also claimed that the Ofqual requirements were themselves inadequate in that they left out areas of mathematics which underpinned the sciences.

For example the requirements for physics and chemistry A-level left out calculus and the requirements for biology A-level ignored the maths needed to convert between different units.

The authors also found a disparity between the different exam boards, with some requiring a greater proportion of maths and more complex calculations than others.

They called for a framework to ensure parity between boards, and a review of the mathematical requirements for each of the sciences at A-level.

Prof Hutchings said professional scientific bodies should play a role in the design of A-levels to ensure they were fit for purpose.

A-level change

A second report into the maths content of six other A-level subjects which depended on maths found even greater variation in mathematical content between boards.

The Nuffield Foundation examined the 2010 A-level papers for business studies, computing, economics, geography, psychology and sociology.

The report concluded that with the exception of computing, the variation in mathematical content was so great that the qualifications did not give universities or employers a meaningful indication of students’ level of mathematical skill or understanding.

The two reports were carried out in response to research last year that suggested two-thirds of science undergraduates did not have the necessary mathematical skills for their course.

A spokesman for Ofqual responded: “We intend to consult in the summer on proposals to change the A-level system. When A-levels are redesigned, universities and other learned bodies will be more involved in deciding the content to make sure they meet their needs.

“Our own research into universities’, employers’ and teachers’views of A-levels also highlighted some concerns about the mathematical content of A-levels, particularly physics.”

Cambridge Assessment, which owns the exam board OCR, said the research confirmed its own work on higher education, and added that it was already working on new qualifications to boost the mathematics skills of A-level science students.

A spokeswoman for the Edexcel exam board said: “We should take on board the expertise of employers whose views are important for building high-quality examinations that meet the demands of the global economy.”

Michael Gove calls on watchdog to let universities set A-level examinations

Michael Gove calls on watchdog to let universities set A-level examinations

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Students sitting exams

Michael Gove’s move is likely to lead to fewer top grades and longer essay questions in A-level exams. Photograph: Keith Morris/Alamy

Education secretary Michael Gove has asked the top universities to set A-level exams, amid fears that tens of thousands of teenagers are woefully under-prepared when they start their degrees.

Gove has instructed the exam boards and ministers to “take a step back” from dictating the content of A-levels and hand over the power to academics. At present, the Department for Education sets out the structure and core knowledge A-level students need to know, and exam boards devise the questions and coursework. Gove has written to the qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, asking for universities to be allowed to “drive the system”.

The 24 most academically competitive universities in the UK, known as the Russell Group, will be allowed to set questions and the content of the syllabus. Schools will be advised to put their pupils in for only those A-levels that have been approved by the universities.

When A-levels were introduced in the early 1950s, they were set by universities and seen as rigorous preparation for degree courses.

Gove’s move is likely to lead to fewer students achieving top grades, the abolition of modules and retakes – other than in exceptional circumstances – and longer essay questions in exams.

The coalition wants the new A-levels to be taught from as soon as 2014. Students would sit the exams two years later. Initially, the changes would affect English, maths and science A-levels in England, but would soon be rolled out to all subjects and across the UK.

Gove said Ofqual must ensure university ownership of the exams was “real and committed, not a tick-box exercise”.

“I am increasingly concerned that current A-levels, though they have much to commend them, fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see,” his letter to Ofqual states.

“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications. It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”

Meanwhile, a poll of lecturers has found that many think A-level exams no longer prepare students for university. Just over half of the 633 academics polled by Cambridge University’s exam board, Cambridge Assessment, said students did not possess the writing or critical thinking skills needed for their degree courses. Three-fifths said their universities offered catchup classes for first-year undergraduates.

The poll, part of an 18-month study into how A-levels can better prepare students for university, found that academics wanted to limit the number of times students can retake their exams. In one case, a mature student was allowed to retake an A-level maths module 29 times.

The lecturers, who taught English, history, geography, psychology and business studies degrees, called for A-level exams to include more open-ended questions and encourage more independent study.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance exam board, has said A-levels need to be reliable “but the pendulum has swung too far that way, so there’s a danger that they are too predictable”.

Teachers Tempted To Rewrite Pupils’ Exam Answers

Teachers Tempted To Rewrite Pupils’ Exam Answers

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Headteachers consider strike

Seven out of ten teachers polled said pressure to improve their pupils’ grades has intensified. Photograph Rui Vieira/PA

More than a third of teachers have admitted they could be tempted to re-write their pupils’ exam answers, according to a poll.

Some 35% of teachers said the pressure to improve their students’ grades was now so strong they could be persuaded to cheat.

A few admitted cheating was already rife in their schools in the survey of 512 teachers conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

One secondary school French teacher, who didn’t want to be named, told the pollsters she “virtually re-wrote” students’ work to match the marking criteria, rather than teach them:

“I do this simply because there is not time to do both.”

A primary school teacher told the pollsters she had “been forced to manipulate results so that levels of progress stay up”. “Our head fears an Ofsted inspection should our results waver.”

A secondary school teacher said their school “definitely pushes the boundaries of exam integrity”. Maintaining the school’s status in league tables “took precedence over developing the abilities of pupils,” they said.

A spokesman from the Department for Education said parents would be “absolutely outraged” if teachers were manipulating exam or test scores.

“There is absolutely no excuse for teachers cheating … It undermines other staff, damages children’s education and risks destroying the public’s faith in the profession.”

He said all the leading education systems in the world had“robust” testing in schools and classroom inspections. “Parents and the taxpayer would rightly be asking questions if they couldn’t judge how schools are doing,” he said.

Some 71% of those polled said pressure to improve their pupils’grades had increased in the past two years. Teachers were asked to list the groups placing pressure on them. Some 88% said their headteachers, 51% said inspectors and 50% said parents. Just over a third said the government.

The majority of teachers offer after-school classes, while 9% said they sometimes give up weekends to coach pupils. Just over a quarter gave rewards to pupils to encourage them to study harder.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, said the government’s“persistent” focus on tests, exams and league tables left teachers under “enormous pressure” and that this was “often to the detriment to high quality teaching and learning.”

“Results now appear to be more important than learning this does nothing to help children’s progress,” she said. The government needs to think urgently about relieving the pressure on headteachers and leaders. This pressure simply filters on to teachers and lecturers in the classroom.”

Thousands of teachers and lecturers will gather in Manchester on Monday for ATL’s annual conference.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers

%d bloggers like this: