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Qualification reform and how to solve a problem like GCSE resits

With Rishi Sunak’s much welcomed announcement that English and maths in Further Education is to receive a significant funding increase, other aspects of his announcement have raised eyebrows, specifically mention of reforming GCSEs.

From additional funding to additional teaching hours, the reforms are far reaching, but questions remain over what GCSE reform could look like.

There is talk, too, of a ‘driving license style’ qualification (ignoring the fact that more than half those sitting a driving test do not pass it) or of creating a qualification which assesses students at ‘the point of readiness’ (i.e. when ready to be assessed), with a focus on building student confidence. The challenge for Further Education is that students often arrive in FE already demoralised having not achieved a grade 4+ in school. To mitigate, assessing at the point of readiness would require implementation in schools, running the real risk of students leaving school without exam experience or a qualification (awaiting ‘point of readiness’). This in itself would spark significant debate amongst school leaders – how is progress measured without a final, end point assessment?

This ‘point of readiness’ would then need to be found in FE, with teachers and leaders needing to support students onto relevant programmes of study without entry qualifications (limiting options).

Further still, what if students did not reach the ‘point of readiness’ whilst in Further Education? Surely a GCSE grade 1 – 3 is better than no qualification at all?

Also previously discussed has been a ‘Duolingo’ style qualification which would assess students in the elements of English and maths required for particular roles. There is no doubt that this would significantly improve attainment (part of Rishi Sunak’s English and maths to 18 announcement), but at what cost? Surely the aim of education is not just to provide students with qualifications, but to enable mastery of underpinning skills, allowing students to apply skills in any context (giving students flexibility and freedom to follow any career path)? Following this, when would students continue their study to master unassessed elements? This approach is much more likely to limit students to careers for which they have relevant maths knowledge at the ages of 16 to 19.

Billed as a ‘certificate of proficiency’, this approach reads more like a narrowing of the curriculum to support greater achievement. A qualification which only promotes assessment of student strengths is no qualification at all.

Discussion has also included reforming GCSEs so as to be assessed through other means than exams, potentially including in-class assessment. Though unlikely (as this would require a move back to a system which was overhauled within the last decade), this could support students; however, not without significant challenge. At a time of falling applications for trainee teachers, significant strain on existing staff and specific challenges in recruiting and retaining English and (particularly) maths staff, the workload associated with completing in-class assessments is huge. This workload could be exported (i.e. to existing exam markers), but this would carry enormous cost for a sector challenged to find funds for a recently announced first (funded) pay rise in years. Additionally, though additional funding to recruit teachers is a positive step, little is being done to support experienced teachers (who will now find the gap between their salary and that of new teachers much diminished as teachers within the first 5 years of their career in FE will now benefit from the £6k, tax free Levelling Up Premium).

As well as this, any reformed qualification would carry significant cost in development and likely carry diluted confidence with it. With employers, Universities and other Higher Education settings taking a number of years to fully understand and accept the reformed GCSE qualifications, a replacement (or additional) qualification could be met with trepidation. We need look no further than T Levels to see this in action (now part of the Advanced British Standard) and we must remember that many Universities still do not accept Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths.

With on-screen GCSE assessments trialled in 2022, and Welsh education launching a reformed maths GCSE, we are not short of options. But are we missing an obvious answer?

Significant concern has been raised over extended periods about the impact of shifting boundaries on students who miss out by the slimmest of margins. Could this be a simple starting point? What if we were to leave raw marks behind and decide GCSE grade boundaries using a much simpler methodology? What if consistent boundaries were set over the medium to long term? What if a set boundary was agreed across all exam boards as a percentage for an extended period (whilst retaining consistent levels of challenge and rigour in existing qualifications)? What if all students, teachers, leaders and parents knew (well in advance of exams) that 40-50% of marks were needed to achieve a grade 4? Of course, there are significant challenges here too, but why replace an entire qualification with reforms which have no evidence of impact? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

With debate raging around future assessment, there are elements which all agree on: the quality of teaching that students receive significantly impacts achievement. With this in mind, and until reforms are seen to any or all qualifications, this should remain the focus. Yes, let’s debate the merits and disadvantages of existing and potential future qualifications, but in the meantime, we must focus on supporting teachers to continue to develop. Similarly, we must continue to focus on giving students the support they need. Why not fully fund 5 hours of teaching per week of maths and English (whether GCSE or FS) before looking to reform qualifications?

With this in mind, it’s fantastic to see that work to support teachers, students and leaders has already started in Further Education. The BASE Project, supporting students, teachers and leaders in Further Education English and maths throughout the North-East, Yorkshire and Humberside, has a library of DfE funded tools and resources to support all progress and achievement. With a focus on supporting high-quality, impactful teaching and supporting self-efficacy in students, you can find more information on the BASE Project, and how it is supporting colleges (and can support you), on our website here.

We’re also excited to host our first CPD event of the 2023/24 academic year. With a host of experts from across the sector, the event (which takes place on Wednesday 18th October from 3:30pm – 5.00pm) promises fantastic insight into best practice in English and maths for both teachers and leaders. Sign up here for more information.

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