Good morning. I’m delighted to be here at the RAF Club today to talk to you about the progress being made towards the launch of the first wave of reformed GCSEs and AS and A levels this autumn. Just as with any Air Force mission, you would expect our preparations for launch to have been careful and detailed. And we have designed the new qualifications against clear mission objectives, constructing them to be more resilient in a variety of ways than those currently being used. This morning I would like to give you some more detail about how we’ve arrived at our current position, and set out what is yet to come before they take flight this September.
The reform processes for GCSEs, AS and A levels were initiated back in 2013, but the government’s objectives for the two qualifications are quite distinct. In summary, the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove, stated at the time that GCSEs “should remain universal qualifications of about the same size as they are currently, and accessible to the same proportion of pupils as currently sits GCSE exams”. Further, “at the level of what is widely considered to be a pass, there must be an increase in demand, to reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions. And the top end the new qualification should prepare pupils properly to progress to A levels or other study.” At AS and A level the government’s focus was on developing new subject content, including greater involvement from the higher education sector, and decoupling AS and A levels.
Since then we have worked with subject and assessment experts as we have developed and tested our thinking on a range of assessment matters. At a high level, we have decided to move away from modularisation, determine a new grading system and reconsider tiering across GCSEs. And we are making changes to non-exam assessment for both GCSEs and A levels. All that said, no two subjects are identical and therefore assessment decisions inevitably have to be taken on a subject-by-subject basis. While we have sought input from experts outside our Coventry ‘hangar’ and we consult publicly and widely before taking these decisions, they are our judgements ultimately, and it is important that we explain them. So let me begin with GCSEs.
The evidence is clear, GCSEs need to change if they are to remain respected qualifications and support a world class education system. We only have to look at our own annual perceptions survey to know of concerns. While GCSEs are a trusted qualification, the level of trust is not as great as for A levels. To be clear, I am not suggesting that GCSEs are in freefall. There is a strong correlation between trust and perceptions of marking, which I will return to later, but GCSEs are overdue a service, more than a few replacement parts and patches can fix. The changes we are making will mean they are more engaging and worthwhile to teach and study, and more resilient so that everyone can have greater confidence in the results. So what have we done?
First, we concluded that tiering should be used only for subjects where untiered papers will not allow students at the lower end of the ability range to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, or will not stretch the most able. Thus far we have decided to use tiering in maths, science and modern foreign languages and we will keep under review its potential to be used in any subjects to be developed for first teaching in 2017.
Second, we took the decision to move to a fully linear structure, with all assessment at the end of the course. We did this for a number of reasons, not least to avoid the disruption to teaching and learning through repeated assessment. But we also did this to allow students to demonstrate the full breadth of their abilities in the subject and to allow standards to be set fairly and consistently.
Third, we decided that the default method of assessment would be by written examination, except where that cannot provide valid assessment of the skills required. We have been announcing decisions on non-exam assessment on a subject-by-subject basis and perhaps the most controversy has surrounded our decision to move to written assessment of practical science at GCSE (and A level for that matter).
Since we announced that decision in March we have launched a technical consultation into the detail around science practicals, including how the monitoring and reporting is to be conducted. But equally importantly we have met with the Royal Society on a number of occasions to discuss how the reforms can be embedded into the system. The meetings have been designed to gain a common understanding of the issues, such as how we would ensure that students experience sufficient, good practical science over their two year period of study. These have been positive meetings involving not just Ofqual, but also exam boards and the Department for Education. One key decision that we have made thus far is that every single school and college in the country will be visited by a monitor from their exam board within the first two years following first teaching of GCSE science to support schools through the transition.
Returning to my list of changes, we have made the decision to introduce a new 9 to 1 grading structure. The new scale will allow end users of the qualification to see immediately whether candidates did the new or a previous version of the GCSE, and allow better discrimination between higher performing students. However, we know that people will want to make comparisons between the new and old grading scales and I hope some of you will have seen the ‘postcard’ we have launched recently to help make such comparisons. Associated with this, the Secretary of State announced yesterday that the government’s view of a ‘good pass’ on the new scale would be set at grade 5. This is comparable to a low B or high C under the old grading system, so an increase from where we are now.
Before I move on, I would just like to use the new maths GCSE as a case study for the interaction of two of these key changes, since it – along with English language and English literature – is being first taught this September. Unlike most GCSEs, maths will continue to be tiered, with the foundation tier covering grades 1 to 5 and the higher tier covering grades 4 to 9. Currently, many teachers are forced to choose between teaching a subset of the higher tier curriculum in the hope that their borderline students can do just enough to get above the grade C boundary, or teaching broadly at the foundation tier and risking their students failing to pick up enough marks to get that grade. We hear that the higher tier route is often chosen because it is in some sense considered the easier option. We also know that each of the exam boards currently approaches awarding for these mid-grade students in different ways. All those in education should recognise that this is not an optimal situation.
As a result, from 2017, we have asked the exam boards to introduce a new standard to assist transparency in maths and science GCSEs. Each boards’ papers will contain a proportion of common questions – accounting for at least 20% of the available marks – across their two tiers. Knowing that this overlap exists between tiers should help teachers make decisions in the best interests of many more students.
We have also sought, along with the Department for Education, to build greater consistency into the qualifications offered by the boards in a number of other ways. On the department’s side, this has meant defining more of the curriculum as core content. And on our side it has meant being more prescriptive in terms of our guidance and conditions and regulating in a fashion to stop known effects of adverse competition. Our decision to remove or reduce non-exam assessment in the majority of GCSEs is one example. The steps we have taken mean that teachers will still get the benefit of being able to choose the exam board that they feel best meets their teaching style and preferences, and their students, while we oversee awarding and create a more level playing field for all.
Another dimension to this is the introduction of the new National Reference Tests. I hope some, if not all of you in this room, will have received a letter from me over half-term to ask for your support for this important development. Currently, our comparable outcomes policy allows exam boards to increase the proportion of students awarded a higher grade in a particular year, provided that there is evidence to justify this. However, exam boards currently have limited evidence to support judgments of a genuine change in student performance at the national level. We know that teachers are concerned that their efforts to raise standards, year by year, may not be fully reflected in the awards made at GCSE; this is the gap that the new tests are designed to address. So participation in the tests benefits both schools and students, as it helps provide evidence of any changes in school performance at the national level that can be reflected in awarding.
The tests are being designed, developed and delivered on our behalf by the National Foundation for Educational Research. They have been in contact with a number of schools over the past few weeks to recruit volunteers to support trials of reference test questions this September. These initial trials will be smaller than the formal tests that will follow – in the first instance, a full-scale trial in March 2016 – but the trial will provide feedback from around 200 schools and 4,000 students. The new tests will only be successful if schools take part in them. Therefore I would urge you to participate if your school is approached.
The trials are only the first step. It will take us several years to introduce the new tests and to use the information gained from them. As such, we will act cautiously as we build our understanding of the information that the tests will provide and how this information can be used when awarding GCSEs.
Returning briefly to marking, we know from our own research that the quality of marking at both GCSE and A level is in general good. But there is room for improvement. We already have details of some of the actions that exam boards intend to take this summer to minimise grade changes, such as reviewing mark schemes and improving examiner recruitment and training.
We have also been taking particular interest in how exam boards can more closely monitor the quality of marking. As well as asking much more in terms of boards’ own monitoring, we want to put in place some other levers to ensure we exert continued influence over the boards to improve and to continue to improve marking quality. One key lever is visibility, and we want to introduce publishable marking metrics by 2017. These independent measures of the quality of marking will mean that we, or indeed anyone involved in the examination system, will be able to inspect marking quality on a subject-by-subject, board-by-board basis. Such metrics should act to increase the quality of marking, as well as confidence and quality of discussion around this extremely important aspect of GCSEs and A levels.
Some might argue that the changes to AS and A levels are more limited than those to GCSEs. There is no expectation of a shift in the level of demand per se, and the current A* to E grading structure is being retained. But I would not wish the degree of change to be underestimated. A levels are being reformed to update their content and to move from unitised to linear assessment. Most subjects have not been reviewed or updated for about 8 to 10 years, and they are ripe for decommissioning – they are at the end of the usual service life of key qualifications. I will briefly touch on three areas with respect to our work on AS and A levels.
First, we have required exam boards to set out in detail their assessment strategies in each subject (for both A levels and GCSEs), covering for example their approaches to domain sampling (making sure that enough of the curriculum is assessed) and to item design (e.g. the balance between long and short questions) and to mark schemes. Second, our accreditation process has been comprehensive, and delivered with a new tranche of experts – some 650 in total. And third, we have reviewed the balance of exam and non-exam assessment. Here we are seeking the right balance, subject by subject, so that the assessment supports rather than undermines the curriculum aims, and is able to provide sufficiently reliable results.
I hope today that I have demonstrated that our thinking in rooted firmly in the 21st Century and we are not stuck at the experimental stage with the Wright brothers, hoping our qualifications will fly. I’m also sure that like me you recognise that the potential for short-term turbulence in the education system has receded following the election – we have a settled government, and settled policies. There is still work to be done before we earn our reform wings. An immediate cross-check is to conclude our scrutiny of revised GCSE maths materials at the end of this month, which remains on course, but I hope you agree that good progress is being made.