Reforms, resits and 'good' passes

Reforms, resits and 'good' passes

Writing in the latest issue of OCR's Policy Briefing, Paul Steer comments on the challenges of reforming functional skills, what a 'good pass' will look like at GCSE following the 9-1 reforms, and the 'heavily criticised' maths and English resit policy.

In a slightly peculiar communication from Justine Greening we learn that "Rather than reporting on the "good pass", we (the DfE ) will instead distinguish between a grade 4 as a "standard pass" and Does this mean a grade 3 is a "near miss" or that a grade 9 is "mission impossible"? a grade 5 as a "strong pass" and report on both". This has understandably resulted in a certain amount of bafflement and even hilarity. Does this mean a grade 3 is a "near miss" or that a grade 9 is "mission impossible"? The truth is that, for all the obfuscation, the letter represents a very sensible move away from the government's original and untenable position of making the grade 5 its new gold standard, and we should applaud the Secretary of State for a careful reconsideration of the original position. To be clear, it was always the case that anyone who would have achieved a C grade under the old system is likely to get a grade 4 under the new system. And that is all that needs to be said.

In a far clearer announcement the DfE has let it be known that, following a review of Applied General Qualifications, it has concluded that this category of valuable level 3 qualifications, which includes ...the DfE should be congratulated for a decision that will preserve the best interests of many young people. most of OCR's Cambridge Technicals, should continue to be recognised in performance measures. Given the growth in uptake of these qualifications and the important role they play alongside A Levels in providing progression to Higher Education, this is very good news. Again, the DfE should be congratulated for a decision that will preserve the best interests of many young people.

According to an unconfirmed report in FE Week, the DfE has also shown good sense by backing away from its heavily criticised GCSE resit policy. Those who achieved a D at GCSE English and maths will no longer be required to, as Justine Greening herself put it, "spend time running upwards against a brick wall that they’re not going to get over". This sounds like a very sensible response to criticism from Amanda Spielman and others. Let’s hope the story turns out to be true.

If this change of policy comes into being it will mean that many young people will be taking Functional Skills in maths and English rather than resitting GCSEs in these subjects. This is wholly The opportunity to resit GCSEs where it is appropriate should not be lost. appropriate for the many, but we should bear in mind that although nearly 200,000 students 'failed' their resits last summer, under the GCSE resit policy there were 85,700 students who converted their resits into a C or above. The opportunity to resit GCSEs where it is appropriate should not be lost.

We should also acknowledge that Functional Skills are far from the perfect solution. In yet another outbreak of good sense, the DfE has announced that the current review of Functional Skills is to be delayed for a year. This is important because there are fundamental questions about these qualifications which still need to be addressed and which, as yet, have barely been acknowledged. Firstly, there are questions about the validity of the assessment model and whether the scenario-based examination questions used ...are we really testing a student's ability to apply skills to 'realistic' situations? are really testing a student's ability to apply skills to 'realistic' situations. Secondly, there are concerns about comparability of standards between the fifteen separate exam boards offering Functional Skills - Ofqual is already floating ideas about what it can do to guarantee greater comparability between boards; this includes some form of joint awarding or data sharing – no trivial matter when you consider that 820,000 Functional Skills certificates were awarded last year and that, with the change to resit policy, this figure can only go up.

The GCSE resit policy may also have been something which Professor Adrian Smith's long-awaited review of post-16 maths education would have commented upon. Some of us have been eagerly awaiting the publication of this review since it was first promised for publication last autumn but there is still no sign of it. When it finally arrives it will be interesting to see whether it picks up on the 80% of young people remain adamantly opposed to making the study of maths beyond 16 compulsory. issues raised in the recent REVAMP report (Rethinking the Value of Advanced Mathematics Participation). The REVAMP report reminds us of some of the basic challenges facing the teaching of post-16 maths, including the not insignificant fact that 80% of young people remain adamantly opposed to making the study of maths beyond 16 compulsory.

The same review also highlights risks to the uptake of post-16 maths because of reforms to the exam system as a whole. The 9-1 grading system allows for greater differentiation between the most The 9-1 grading system allows for greater differentiation between the most able. able which inevitably means fewer candidates will achieve the top grade. So while maths is currently the most popular A Level and OCR has developed two new A Level maths suites to meet the differing needs of students - the only exam board to do so – the REVAMP report fears the effect of this will be fewer people opting to go on to study maths at A Level. The linearisation of A Levels and the decoupling of the AS, in general, seem to be leading to students studying fewer A Level subjects and it is possible that maths will be a less common A Level option as a result.

These concerns make it clear that the exam system is far from immune from risks and unforeseen consequences whenever a change is introduced, however well-intentioned that change is. The latest regulatory changes to the processes for reviewing marking are a case in point. The provision of GCSE scripts in advance of the deadline for requesting marking reviews is undeniably a step The exam system is far from immune from risks and unforeseen consequences.. towards greater transparency and will allow for more informed decisions about when to request a review. What hadn't been anticipated were the concerns, now being raised by those representing the teacher workforce, that teachers may be asked to stay on at the start of their summer holidays to analyse each and every script. It remains to be seen whether this will become common practice in schools, but given the high stakes nature of school accountability measures, it might well do.

Schools are also concerned about the new requirement to make marks for internally-assessed coursework available to pupils. Again, it is right and proper that pupils should have access to this information, but schools are understandably worried about how this might increase the number of internal appeals they face. Managing appeals within a school can be time consuming and Appeals in low-uptake subjects, often taught by a single member of staff, are particularly difficult to manage. complicated, especially when it comes to finding an individual with the right subject expertise and sufficient independence to make a final judgement. Appeals in low-uptake subjects, often taught by a single member of staff, are particularly difficult to manage and could make the continued teaching of such subjects even more vulnerable.

In fairness, Ofqual always consults widely on proposed changes and always weighs up the feedback received very carefully, but the direction of travel is one of greater regulation, all for the right reasons, but not without complexity, additional cost and unforeseen consequences. We must hope that, like the DfE in relation to some aspects of exam reform, Ofqual will be prepared to reconsider things in the light of experience.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR

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