Let me start by saying that I am pleased that the Ofqual consultation on grading has been published. This is a highly technical document which begins to add some of the missing pieces to the qualifications jigsaw. We must welcome Ofqual’s genuine intention to put in place qualifications which are trusted; reflect transparent, widely understood standards; and can reliably demonstrate real improvement. These are all big asks and I am certain that both Ofqual and the awarding bodies are under no illusion about the magnitude of the task.
However, the fact is that the cart remains before the horse. We still do not know exactly what these examinations will be testing or what the assessments will look like. The clock is ticking and until that work has been done, nobody will be able to draw conclusions about their quality.
ASCL’s policy experts and our elected Council – experienced, serving school and college leaders - will be considering this consultation in great detail as we prepare our full response, but in the meantime, the following thoughts are going through my mind.
Link to international assessments
ASCL has always been clear about the value of looking carefully at data from OECD and other international assessments to find out what we can learn. That is not the same as linking our GCSE grades to an average mark in the PISA tests. PISA is a completely different kind of assessment designed for a different purpose and based on different content. If we wanted to link our performance to PISA, would we not need to design subject content around what is in the tests? And would that in the long run help our graduates when they go into the job market? I suspect not. We need to ask serious questions about the validity of such an approach and seek reassurance that this has been properly thought out. Exams should be designed to meet the needs of young people, full stop.
The consultation helpfully describes standards in terms of content, assessment and performance. Equally helpfully it describes the relative merits of different approaches to setting standards. The difficulty facing teachers at the moment is that the key element is still missing from this discussion – namely the detailed content of the examinations. Until we see what performance at a particular grade looks like in terms of a student’s output it is very difficult indeed to come to a judgement about the potential quality, validity or reliability of these assessments or indeed to identify what we need to do in order to prepare young people for them.
Media coverage of this launch has focused largely on the new grade 9. One newspaper described this in terms as a grade for the ‘elite’. The concept of a pass grade was also widely discussed. School leaders want to enable as many students as possible to achieve the highest possible grades so that they have the best chance of accessing all the opportunities available to them. What must not happen is that we end up with a new set of benchmarks for failure or more accountability sticks to beat schools with. We are in this together. We need to focus on what students know and understand. There is a real job to do to avoid confusion about the juxta-position of two types of GCSE in England with two different grading systems (not to mention the different examinations in Wales). We must not undermine confidence in those other qualifications.
I welcome the debate that will arise from this consultation. However the jigsaw is far from complete enough for teachers to begin to prepare for these new exams. We must see the whole picture and plan our curriculum holistically before any final decisions are made.