Insane – Secondary assessment in education from 2017 and beyond

Across the Educational nation as I write, secondary teachers and administrators alike are wrestling with the almost impossible task of migrating GCSE courses measured in letter grades A-G to new programmes of study measured using a 1 to 9 scale.


To the lay person, it looks quite straightforward. But the letter-based qualifications are based on syllabi which are withdrawn at close of 2017, and the new number-measured syllabi are expected to be harder, contain much more to be learned and recalled by rote, and are certainly very different in assessment approach from their predecessors.  The read-across is not really quite straightforward.  Some subjects currently have a blend of tests during the 2 years (controlled assessments) coupled with an end of course exam.  Others have substantial coursework instead, plus the terminal exam.  Either way, during the 2 years of study, pupils and teachers share feedback from the exam board on how well they are doing. Additional efforts can occur to improve controlled assessment outcomes. This is the current normal way things are done and basically have been so for almost 30 years. With effect from 2017 in English and Maths, and from 2018 in most other subjects, all assessment will occur at the end of the 2 years.  This is how things were back prior to the Summer 1987, the last years of the old O Levels and CSEs.

As an additional test for us all, currently a grade C is regarded as a good pass. For the new grades, a good pass is a level 5, though a C mark range falls down to a level 4.  No one will know what a 5 will look like until it happens – because we are guaranteed there will be the same number of level 4s and above as there grade Cs and above. We can estimate about 10% of the pupil population currently gaining a Grade C won’t get a level 5, so inevitably Results in the nation will get worse.  

“Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says raising the bar on GCSE exams will help pupils achieve in life.” BBC News 

And each individual school is having to translate the challenge for its teachers, parents and pupils. Quite understandably, confidence in the Education examination process is not perhaps as solid as it once was.  For most younger English parents, their experience of secondary school included valuable opportunities for coursework marks to be included together with the results from terminal examinations in their final GCSE grades at 16+. Since 1988, our examinations have been built around the premise that children’s learning should be assessed through the measurement of what they know, understand and can do not just in tests but in a variety of ways.  Now we have that new exam, harder and more of them at the end of the 2 years.

The trouble is, none of us know what any of the levels look like. For those seeking a pass, they can’t see what a level 4 or level 5 looks like, given that the ‘mark’ is going to come from an assessment measure yet to be designed and tested.

As it happens, the DfE is quite worried about this, so schools are to be required to subject some of their year 11 pupils to take reference exams in English and Maths in March prior to their Easter break. As Claires Court will be participating in the GCSE process, some of our Year 11s will be randomly picked by DfE to take part in this exercise. The pupils will get no feedback from this reference test, and won’t know what it looks like, but at least the DfE will capture some benchmark data on how some children in their GCSE year are performing more generally in English and Maths.  I can foresee parents writing sick notes as I scribe just now.

Have I mentioned that all the A levels are changing as well?  Since 2002, we have had a well organised system of modular assessments between age 16 and 18, that mimic the way Universities assess and how actually best learning happens.  For the country, it’s been a stunning success, though we did have to reduce the number of resits and lose January modules. In the new programme, the subject is to be studied for 2 years, with the only assessment happening at the end.  It is true that you can take exams after one year of study, but the way of questioning and assessment is different and any marks gained won’t count. We are keeping the letter grades though. There’s a comfort.

What is really worrying about the whole reinvention of the entire secondary examination system in England all at the same time, is that no-one in their right mind would choose to do such a thing. It’s completely insane. Teacher work load has gone through the roof, and the drop out rate from the profession is at an all time high, just when the population of school-age children is exponentially growing and we need 10% more teachers than ever before. For the next few years, almost all our understanding of what makes for sensible external assessment for employers and universities has been set adrift, with only the lightest of life-lines to a previous shore.

Here at Claires Court, we have chosen to switch a number of our subjects to the iGCSE, which is already understood and benchmarked appropriately. Whilst iGCSE grades will migrate to numbers in 2018, we can predict what incremental levels of improvement are needed to gain that tougher level 5. Sadly for the 93% of schools in the state sector, they have been forbidden to use this iGCSE approach, and inevitably 10% of children who currently pass are going to fail.  Remember Mrs Morgan’s words:

“Raising the bar on GCSE exams will help pupils achieve in life.”

Remember Mr Wilding’s words






About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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2 Responses to Insane – Secondary assessment in education from 2017 and beyond

  1. Stephen Holsgrove says:

    Well said James. We too are moving a lot of subjects to iGCSE.

  2. Henry Cremin says:

    If it’s not broke don’t fix it.
    I was thinking of taking my car to the Vets for a service, really?, no of course not, there are appropriate professionals that carry out specific tasks, with my car they are called mechanics, when schooling our children I believe they are called Educationalists.

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