Monthly Archives: June 2013

Reform of GCSEs: Rigour, Relevance and Righteousness

So we now have Mr. Gove’s announcement regarding the future of GCSEs. Some parts of his statement to the house were not contentious. Everyone wants the best for our young people and, of course, all of us would agree that:


‘Young people in this country deserve an education system that can compete with the best in the world, a system which sets – and achieves – high expectations.’

However, Gove’s record with respect to evidence-based policy development is well documented and hence there will inevitably be controversy with respect to his strategy. It is unfortunate (if that is not too charitable) that much of the ten week consultation period falls in the summer holiday as there is clearly a need for a national debate about his assertion that:


‘Today’s reforms are essential to achieve this goal.’




Although he has tried to present his false starts on GCSE reform in a positive light, the Secretary of State has provided his critics with plenty of ammunition. One point on which he has been consistent however is in his use of the word ‘rigour’. He has said it repeatedly, claimed that he is its one true champion and lambasted the educational establishment for failing to ensure the current system has enough of it. Despite the frequency with which he has used the word, he has had little to say with respect to his definition of rigour.


The centerpiece of his strategy for a more rigorous future is that:


course work and controlled assessment will largely be replaced by linear, externally marked end-of-course exams’.


So, quite clearly Mr. Gove believes that for a GCSE course to be rigorous, it must involve remembering ‘stuff’ for up to two years for regurgitation in terminal examinations. Logically, this strategy should be effective in terms of his narrow definition of the word ‘rigour’. GCSEs will be more rigorous tests of memory.  

However, the word ‘rigour’ (dictionary definition: the use of high standards) can be applied to anything and, indeed, should be applied to everything schools do. Schools must ensure they take a rigorous approach to developing, for example, communication skills, self-confidence, problem-solving, creativity, evaluation skills, team work, skills relating to learning to learn, adaptability, behaviour, health and well being, sports skills, etc, etc. See previous blog: ‘Dumbing Down in the Name of Rigour’


Mr. Gove often expresses his respect for OECD education guru, Andreas Shleicher, who suggests that those set to be most successful in the global economy are the ‘versatilists’. He describes them thus:

They apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships and assuming new roles. They are capable not only of constantly adapting, but also constantly learning and growing in a fast-changing world.’

Knowledge is obviously very important indeed but we must consider the contribution terminal examinations will make to the rigorous preparation students need for this fast-changing world.

We must challenge the long-held but misguided view that education is a series of sieves designed to ‘sort the sheep from the goats’ and identify those fit to attend a Russell Group University. If we are to make optimum use of the talents of our young people, we need a much richer and more authentic view of how we celebrate and affirm what all of them achieve.  


Most serving teachers are too young to remember the pre-coursework era (before 1988) when the debate focused on:

  • the appropriateness as a preparation for life of two year courses of study followed by ‘big bang’ exams
  • the reliability of one-off, ‘hot day in June’ assessments for making judgements which could have such an impact on students’ life chances

Twenty five years later is perhaps long enough for these debates to have been forgotten and for the clock to be turned back without due consideration of the consequences.

Certainly the path of coursework /controlled assessment has not been a smooth one. The Ofqual document ‘Review of controlled assessment in GCSEs’ includes a good summary of the issues.

There has been much talk of terminal examinations providing a ‘more level playing field’ but there is a wealth of evidence relating to those who are disadvantaged by this system including, for example, girls, underprivileged students without adequate study facilities at home, those with special needs, summer-born children and hay-fever sufferers. It is hard to believe that, like most ‘pendulum swing’ changes, this will not be reversed when its true consequences become clear.

The issue of skill shortages which is regularly raised by business and industry leaders clearly will not be addressed by a return to terminal examinations and, of course, effectiveness of performance in the work-place is judged by a variety of appraisal systems, none of which resemble examinations.

As governments around the world recognise the need to broaden the curriculum (the right starting point) and then to adapt their assessment systems accordingly, it is a concern that changes in England are being driven by Mr. Gove’s conviction that examinations at 16 are not rigorous enough.

The ‘big picture’ has changed markedly since 1988, with young people now required to continue to study until the age of 18. From this wider perspective the Secretary of State may well, in the long term, come to be seen as somewhat blinkered.


Righteousness v The Right Thing

With Mr. Gove’s recent admission on the Andrew Marr programme that he doesn’t really listen to those who disagree with him, it is hard to imagine he will take notice of responses to the GCSE consultation. However, to his credit, he has been bold enough to swallow a little humble pie (even if it was with the rider that the world wasn’t yet quite ready for a man with such vision).

He suggested in his statement to the House that:

‘By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.’

In our responses to the consultation we all need to make the point that breadth, depth and balance are what we all want for our young people but that greater demand, fulfillment and stretch will not be achieved simply by putting all our eggs in the terminal exam basket.


Reform is needed but, as all politicians should know, rushed reform inevitably leads to bad policy. We need to urge Mr. Gove to take the time to get it right.


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