Ofqual on alert for warning signs in A-level and GCSE reforms

The government is attempting to change too much too quickly in the exam system. Simultaneous changes to A-level and GCSE will put at risk many years of steady development. Many people believe that changes are needed – but not all at once – and the strongest voice of caution is coming from the regulator at Ofqual.

In letters to the secretary of state and in an interview in the Times Educational Supplement, Glenys Stacey is sending out clear signals that Ofqual is keeping a watchful eye on the pace of reform and may use its powers to slow down Michael Gove’s fast-moving ambitions on A-level and GCSE.

The TES reports that the regulator believes that “there is a question about whether the system would be able to cope with the simultaneous introduction of reformed GCSEs and A levels in September 2015, as the government wants”. The TES also states that Ofqual has yet to decide whether introducing non-tiered GCSEs that are tougher but still accessible, as proposed by Michael Gove, is achievable. Tiering may be with us for longer than the government wants, the TES predicts.

The proposed reform timetable is also an issue for Ofqual, as it is for the awarding organisations, which will have to re-write GCSEs and A-levels at the same time, and for the teachers who will have to change their approaches to GCSE and A-level simultaneously in English, mathematics, history, geography and the sciences.

Glenys Stacey said: “What we need to understand is whether what government now wishes by way of A-level reform can be managed by exam boards as well as new GCSEs, and if we think it can’t then we have to say that that will create a risk to standards or a risk to delivery.”

My recent blog, “Six-point plan to restore public confidence in exams”, proposed the following: Strengthen Ofqual; professionalise the exams workforce; clarify the purpose of each exam; re-affirm that exams are criterion-referenced; re-calibrate points score equivalence; and reform exams by evolution, not revolution.

I noted then that Ofqual’s warning had been critical in persuading the secretary of state to change his mind about introducing an EBC to replace GCSE. In a letter to the secretary of state, Glenys Stacey stated: “the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment”; and expressing her concern at “introducing completely new qualifications and removing provider competition at the same time”.

In her letter to the secretary of state on 6 February 2013 on the revised GCSE reforms, she stated: “If problems arise, Ofqual would, if necessary, delay the reforms.”

That’s strong language for a regulator – and welcome news for awarding organisations and teachers who capacity for change is being taken for granted by the government.

A particular worry is the way in which grades can be standardised as GCSEs and A-levels move from one system to another. Grade descriptions are notoriously difficult to define precisely, which is why Keith Joseph’s laudable intention to move from the inevitable limitations of norm-referencing to the fairer criterion-referencing was never fully implemented and why we still have a system based on evidence drawn from statistical analysis as well as evidence from expert judgement of students’ exam scripts. The standard of each grade is, as we saw in 2012, not a simple matter to determine and it becomes much more complicated as we move from one system to another.

The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) has now started a programme of training of awarding body senior staff and examiners, leading to accreditation of examinres by the Institute. This professionalising of the assessment and examinations workforce is a necessary pre-cursor to maintaining standards as wemove from one system to another.

But – as in the sixth point of my plan – any exams reform is likely to backfire if it is introduced too quickly, so evolution, not revolution, should dictate the pace of change. Ofqual is our best hope of keeping government ministers under some sort of control.

What’s in a (school) name?

The name of a school can tell people a lot about what happens inside. But secondary school names have been changing with unprecedented speed over the last ten years, first with a trend to put the specialism in the title (“Millfield Science and Performing Arts College”), often under pressure from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Now ‘schools’ are becoming ‘academies’, either by choice or diktat. Others have changed ‘school’ to ‘college’. Some have put ‘The’ at the front. The school name game is a competitive sport!

Comprehensive schools were never bog-standard, but they were mostly called ‘comprehensive’ in the name on the gate. For some years, I have observed in the attendance list at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) very few school leaders with ’comprehensive’ on their delegate badge.

At the 2013 annual conference, the 1150 people attending included 950 from schools, mostly in England, but with a sprinkling from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and further afield.

Of those 950, just 5 were senior leaders of schools with ‘comprehensive’ in their title, in spite of all-ability secondary schools being the large majority.

OK, so the words on the tin don’t necessarily have to describe the contents – who would guess that Pledge is furniture polish? And lots of schools try to encapsulate something of their ethos in their title:

70 of these 950 schools (7.5 per cent) included the faith designation in their title and many more gave a strong hint in that direction without actually stating the religious affiliation – Bennett Memorial Diocesan School or St Peter’s School, for example. Some take this description further, squeezing more information about the school into the name – St Catherine’s School for Girls or Cardinal Newman Catholic School and Community College, for example.

120 schools of the 950 (12.5 per cent) use the word ‘academy’ in their title, an ancient and honourable description of a state school in Scotland, but a much newer title for such a large number in England.

90 schools (9.5 per cent) use the word ‘community’, expressing publicly the idea of the school serving its community, although parental choice now means that some schools barely know what community they serve, so diverse and distant have their catchment areas become.

Some school call themselves a ‘Community College’, or just a ‘College’.

The most popular designation for a secondary school now (190 out of 950 – 20 per cent) is ‘High School’, which says nothing about the nature of the school or its ethos – Oakfield High School, Woodside High School – but often includes its location – Wetherby High School, Uxbridge High School.

In spite of the end of the specialist schools funding, 60 schools (6 per cent) have their specialisms sufficiently embedded in their ethos to have retained it in their title, with Sports College the most popular, followed by Technology College, Engineering College, Arts College and Languages College, in that order, with a single Maths and Computing College trailing in this category among the ASCL conference attendees.

It is this group of schools that, combined with their faith designation, provide the contenders for the longest school name, especially where more than one saint is included – Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Engineering College (since when was engineering a peaceful activity, you may ask), Our Lady and St Chad Catholic Sports College, Brownedge St Mary’s RC High School and Sports College, which, like several other schools, includes both ‘school’ and ‘college’ in its title. Ashington Community High School and Sports College scores in at least three of our categories.

Another bid for distinction comes from the schools that include ‘the’ at the front of their title – The Holy Cross School, The Charter School.

The shortest school name represented at the ASCL conference was Erith School – the same number of letters as Eton College. Who needs a long name?

Add to this a Village College or two, a Learning Village, a Senior School and a Studio School and the diversity of English secondary school names is almost complete.

405 out of 950 (43 per cent), however, eschew any of these additions to their name and remain just ‘School’ – Priory School, Sydney Russell School, Bohunt School, for example.

I have always been a strong supporter of the comprehensive principle, believing that good schools have ‘diversity within’. So the agenda of successive governments to create ‘diversity between’ schools, seemingly without recognising the diversity that exists anyway between schools of similar type run by different people in different communities, creates unnecessary divisions and, this being England, diversity is always turned into hierarchy.

Diversity of schools has become entropy of names. Is there a hierarchy there too?