‘Exam reforms boost private pupils in race for universities’: Observer newspaper (Sunday 30 December)

An edited version of my letter to the editor appeared in the Sunday 6 January 2019 edition. Below is the full text, with one amendment, updating QCDA name to Ofqual.

Dear Sir

Your front page headline ‘Exam reforms boost private pupils in race for universities’ (Sunday 30 December) leads an article of the worst kind of lazy journalism. 
The core argument proposed by Toby Helm is that International GCSE (IGCSE) qualifications are ‘easier’ than the latest generation of English GCSEs, which the DfE requires its state schools to use, and thus are making it harder for state pupils to get to Uni. 
The new GCSES  may have heavier content, but the % of passes at level 4 (C) and level 7 (A) remain the same as before, and as a consequence have the same level of difficulty as before. This equivalence is managed as a requirement of the exam boards by the government’s regulator, Ofqual. So actually, the exams haven’t got harder at all. 
IGCSEs are changing and developing at the same time, so that their curriculum content has become weightier, in response to the arrival of tougher A levels. These have gained heavier content to come more into line with the toughest international qualifications gained for University entry.

Given that GCSEs and IGCSEs are level 2 qualifications, whatever exams pupils are taking at 16, they don’t meet university requirements for level 3 qualifications, such as A level, which are taken 2 years later, at age 18. Surely Helm knows this?

There’s more to understand though.In the previous generation of English GCSEs, pupil studies involved taking lots of mini-tests, ‘controlled assessments’,  involving the submission of coursework, over an 18 month period, as well as terminal exams at the close. Adding in the opportunity to resit and resubmit, candidate GCSE pass rates inexorably rose, but at the expense of developing the deeper study skills needed for both Level 3 qualifications and University beyond.When (back in 2010)  Michael Gove recommended state schools should consider mimicking the independent sector by taking the more demanding IGCSEs, it was to enable state school pupils to have the opportunity to gain this more advanced skill set for higher studies.The ‘new’ GCSEs are like IGCSEs in that they are mainly terminal exam only, and have ‘heavier’ content than before; thus they are more suited to prepare children for the university entrance examinations. 

Herein lies the rub:

Like many eminent international commentators, such as Sir Ken Robinson and Professor Guy Claxton, I resent the whole trajectory of the recent reforms at both GCSE and A level, whose basic premise is to prepare children for University entrance. Education in school needs to be far broader than this, to assist children to enter adult life as emotionally well-balanced individuals, with a range of interests and passions, willing to play their part as contributing members of their community.
As one of some 500 private school secondary heads, I remain proud to provide a deep, broad and engaging school experience for my secondary and sixth form pupils. Yes, I understand my responsibilities to prepare them for University, but I take even more seriously my responsibilities to ensure my children enjoy their childhood for longer. The arts, sport, community engagement, above all fun and play must enrich children through their teenage years. This is how we can build the adults of the future, with both better skills for life and greater mental well being.

Yours faithfully

James Wilding

Academic Principal and Headteacher

Claires Court,Maidenhead

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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