GCSE and BTEC chaos: now redesign the system

Submitted by martin on 26 August, 2020 - 11:42 Author: A London teacher
Exams

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The fiasco of A Level results on 13 August was followed by a week of government crisis leading up to 20 August when GCSE grades were announced. BTEC results, due to be released at the same time as GCSEs, were delayed at the last minute.

Following a series of protests and government stumbles A Level grades were eventually, overall, boosted by allowing “teacher assessed grades” to count (in fact Centre Assessed Grades, CAGs, which are signed off by Head Teachers and are far from being simple teacher assessments).

GCSE results (in England) were notable by a sharp increase in the pass rate (Level 4 and above), by 9%, to 76%. Awards of top grades (Level 7 and above) went up by 5% from last year to 25.9%.

BTEC results are now due on 28 August.

School exams had been cancelled due to Covid and an algorithm had initially been used by the exam regulator, Ofqual, to calculate A Level and GCSE results.

The algorithm had been designed to keep exam grade awards at similar levels to recent years. In this respect it did its job well, cutting down CAGs. 280,000 CAGs, or 40% of the A Level total, were downgraded.

Wanting to avoid grade inflation, and maintain the integrity of the exams, is not, in itself, unreasonable. But the way this was done at A Level proved to be to the benefit of those students from well-off families, at independent schools, and to the serious detriment of working-class kids at many inner-city schools and Sixth Form colleges.

There was much condemnation of “algorithms”. That was unfair on algorithms. If algorithms do not produce reasonable results, it is because humans have messed up. In this case the main culprit, the Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, a twerp, squirmed about, attempting to blame Ofqual for the entire mess. He claimed not to know there was a problem with the method used to calculate the grades.

Williamson is a liar. Classroom teachers knew all about the exact nature of the problem three months ago, so he must have known too.

This staggering, unnecessary, exam mess gives us an opportunity to rethink our education system and to restate some basic values.

For the past several years AWL members in the National Education Union (NEU) have campaigned against the testing regime in primary schools and to get the union to organise a boycott. We eventually won the union to the boycott policy, arguing that the exams are unnecessary and damaging to children’s education and mental health.

Now we need a campaign to do similar in secondary schools. First, GCSEs – brought in when the school leaving age was 16 as an end-of-education exam – must be abolished. GCSEs have damaged the curriculum, for example squeezing out Art and Music to make space to cram Maths and English.

How should children progress without GCSEs? They should be allowed into colleges and sixth forms to study what they want.

And post-16 study, at A Level for example, should be broadened out. Instead of the current A Level system where most students take three subjects, a far narrower diet than in almost any other country, students should take several more courses. Young people should have a broad education. All students should receive a living grant, post-16, to allow everyone to study if they wish to do so.

Post-18 students should be guaranteed a place at a local university. UCAS should be abolished.

That should remove the pressure, panic, and stress now associated with Year 13. At the same time, good well-paid jobs for teenagers who want to go straight into work should be expanded, and opportunities to go to uni later in life (heavily cut back since uni fees were raised) should be expanded.

And directly connected to this exam mess, we should recognise that “teacher assessments” will never be reliable until the pressures to manipulate results that are placed on teachers and school managements are removed.

The heavily politicised and brutal Ofsted-led regime that stands over schools should also be abolished and replaced with supportive and collaborative school-monitoring bodies run through LEAs. Performance-related pay for teachers and school league tables should go too.

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