The Quiet GCSE Pandemonium

As students across the country commence their GCSE exams, there will be crossed fingers and chewed nails galore – and not just from the pupils. For it is the case that since the new specifications came in to being, following Michael Gove’s huge restructure of assessment methods, targets and curriculum in 2013, there has been much confusion, uncertainty and panic from those in charge of creating the new specifications and those left to teach it.

While in theory, it is useful to reassess what is taught and how it measures up internationally at regular intervals, this overhaul has been dramatic and in some cases, nonsensical. It seems in part to hark back to the teaching structure and examination methods of fifty years ago, which does not translate well to the internet-age of 2017. This year will be the first cohort to sit the new exams. They are in fact the guinea pigs, and I suspect that for many of them, the awareness of this has been troubling.

Take for example, English Literature. Gove’s insistence that all texts studied must be British has meant that time honoured literary classics such as Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), The Crucible (Arthur Miller), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) are off the menu completely – they are all American writers. These texts were originally chosen for their usefulness in having a variety of themes to cover, interesting topics and relatively short length enabling 15/16 year olds to access them with ease. Teachers also knew them inside out, having taught them for years and knew how to best bring pupil’s abilities out through them.

I would argue that a good story that is well written is surely the aim of choosing an examination text, not the nationality of the author?

The specification has also moved from a part exam/part coursework structure to an all exam assessment. The coursework element had two uses, that I could see as a teacher. One – it taught pupils how to write essays while analysing texts, a skill they would then use again in the exam. Two – it gave pupils a chance to pick up marks from work they had done outside an exam hall, which is important for pupils who struggle with anxiety or retention skills.

Pupils are not going to be allowed to take texts in to the exam now either. This makes the exam a test of memory NOT a test of analysis which is what SHOULD be being assessed.

As someone who has been a teacher, and has also worked at a senior level for an examination board, I think it is fair to say that I have seen teachers floundering over the last two years trying to work out exactly what the mark bands equate to – since they have also changed from an alphabetical system (A, B, C…) to numerical (9, 8, 7…). They are not merely transferable either – for example, an A does not automatically equate an 8 for example. It did not help when an announcement was made changing what ¬†which level is now the same as an ‘old C’ – just a few months ago!

There is always ‘bedding in’ time needed for any new project. I just hope that the pupils who are sitting the new GCSE exams this year are not penalised for happening to be the first ones through the exam hall doors. In my view, pupils should be awarded justly for the work that they do – not judged and pushed beyond acceptable limits to satisfy some old-school urge to make exams harder and harder.

It is interesting to note that this year alone, mental health problems have risen massively amongst year eleven pupils. There is a sense of hopelessness, of pressure, of needing to meet targets they don’t understand – and some of this has led to tragic circumstances.

Let’s hope that this summer brings some reflection from those who make the decisions at the top, and a desire to increase understanding and confidence in the new system for teachers, examiners and pupils alike. Otherwise, our GCSE exam system will become a vehicle of the unattainable and the panic-driven, instead of the confidence building, success machine it should be.