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Aside from a recent social media furore over his facial hair, Michael Gove has vanished from public life following his ill-judged political disloyalty earlier this year. His main legacy, that of reformed GCSE and A level qualifications, however, is now centre stage in the nation’s schools.

Students embarking on their GCSE qualifications this September will be following new courses in most subjects. The most eye-catching change is that of grading: instead of the familiar A* to G the new courses will be graded from 9 to 1 with 9 being the highest.  The 9, 8 and 7 grades correspond to A* and A grades whilst 6, 5 and 4 cover the ground previously occupied by B and C.  This gives more discrimination in the range of grades that matter; the four grades A* to C are now spread over the six numbers from 9 to 4.  Early indications suggest that the 9 grade is likely to be extremely difficult to gain so that Oxford University have already said that they will not require students to achieve this but rather look at the number of 8 and 9 grades collected by a student. 

Alongside the new grading system are some significant changes to the GCSE syllabuses to try to produce greater academic challenge: a laudable aspiration. A greater emphasis has been placed on using Mathematics to solve problems, both in the Mathematics course and in the science courses.  This is probably bad news for those students who struggle with Mathematics as there will be fewer ‘recipe’ type questions which simply require the candidate to follow a set of memorised instructions to tackle a standard question.  Coursework is largely absent from all the subjects, placing greater emphasis on written examinations at the end of the courses.  Remembering things is also back in fashion with quotations in English to be memorised and a far smaller number of formulae to be provided to candidates in Mathematics and Science exams.  Finally, all students will sit the same paper in most subjects.  The previous system allowed students to sit an easier or a harder paper depending on their likely grade.  Whilst this did limit the grades that could be attained by students sitting the easier paper it meant that these students would not be put off by some very hard questions intended for the most-able candidates.  At Birkdale almost all of the students took the harder papers so that this will have little effect; equally, for academically weak students across the country, I suspect that this change will make it harder for them to show what they can do. 

The effects of all these changes on the students (the people who matter) are difficult to predict. The first set of results in most subjects will not appear until Summer 2018, although Mathematics and English will award results under the new system next summer, giving some early notice.  I suspect that the changes will present little difficulties to students at Birkdale as the school has intentionally included extra challenging material in most subjects over many years to try to stretch each student.  I shall be interested to see whether the well-publicised gender-gap at GCSE, with girls significantly outperforming boys, closes over the next few years.  One idea about the existence of the gap is that coursework tends to favour girls: certainly the boys that I speak to at Birkdale tend to prefer the ‘examination at the end’ format of assessment.

At A level the changes are similarly far-reaching as students return to the days, familiar to me, of 3 A levels examined entirely at the end of the courses. The AS examination will still exist but will not contribute to the overall A level grade and for most students will become an irrelevance.  This offers a real chance to regain the time previously lost to revision and study leave in the L6.  We hope to reclaim the year for teaching and learning and for helping students to grow in enthusiasm and independence untroubled by the stress of public examinations.  As at GCSE, in most of the A level courses, coursework has been reduced or removed.  At Birkdale most students will start their Sixth Form studies with 4 subjects, slimming down to 3 subjects after a term.  This means that they should have had sufficient experience of the subjects to make an informed choice and avoid any late changes of mind.  This is particularly important given that some subjects such as Psychology are new to the students at this stage.  Students will have a large range of non-examined but genuinely interesting ‘enrichment’ courses to choose from after Christmas.  These will include extra languages, marketing, philosophy, history of art and current affairs.  The courses are designed to add some breadth to each student’s curriculum and complement their A level studies.  An additional compulsory course will cover topics in careers, university preparation, study and revision skills and the like.

The aim of all this change is of course to raise standards. Sadly, the government has chosen to phase in the new courses a few subjects at a time so that it will be at least 2020 before students complete new courses in all GCSE and A level subjects.  In the meantime, students will receive a hotchpotch of letter and number grades at GCSE and a mix of old and new A level grades of dubious comparability.  It is fortunate that teachers are well-used to managing continual change!


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