Watchdog calls for stability in exams system

Glenys Stacey
Glenys Stacey
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THE Government’s overhaul of GCSEs could lead to exam results “varying more than normal” for several years, and becoming less predictable in the future, it is warned.

Regulator Ofqual called for a period of stability in the exams system, indicating that tinkering with the qualifications should end.

In a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove, chief regulator Glenys Stacey also warned that the “particular importance” of English and maths should be recognised in the Government’s shake-up of school league tables.

Under plans announced by Mr Gove in February, schools will no longer be judged on the proportion of pupils scoring five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths.

Instead, two new league table measures are being brought in, looking at the percentage of pupils achieving a set threshold in English and maths, and an average points score showing how much progress every student makes between the end of primary school and GCSE level across eight subjects.

The move comes amid growing concerns that the current tables encourage schools to play the system to boost their rankings.

In Ofqual’s response to the Government’s consultation on the shake-up, Ms Stacey said she believes the proposals are “very much in the right direction”.

She says that the Government’s plans work on the basis that all subjects included in the “best eight” measure are counted equally.

“You may want to consider giving different weights to the eight qualifications to recognise the particular importance of English and maths in the overall mix.”

Ms Stacey also said that league tables should not “over-emphasise” certain grade boundaries in key subjects.

Concerns have been repeatedly raised in recent years that the five Cs measure has led to schools focusing on helping pupils on the C/D grade boundary in a bid to boost their overall results.

In a speech to the Commons announcing the league table changes, Mr Gove suggested that the current five A*-C measures has encouraged schools to choose exams based on how easy they are to pass, to concentrate on just five subjects and to focus heavily on pupils on the C/D borderline.

And in a report following last year’s GCSE English controversy, Ofqual warned that the current league tables were putting pressure on schools to ensure as many students as possible achieve a C in key subjects.

In her letter, Ms Stacey goes on to say: “Ideally, qualifications used in accountability measures will be kept stable over a period of years.”

She adds: “When qualifications change, results vary more than normal – both between schools and from year to year – and this variability is inevitable for several years as reforms work their way through the system. What is more, with improved GCSE assessment, results are likely to prove less predictable in future years, and more variable school by school.

“It is tempting, as soon as something is quantified, to assume it to be a more precise measure than it can ever really be. This needs to be recognised in the use of accountability measures by the Department for Education, Ofsted and other users.”

Her comments are likely to be seen as a suggestion that a wide range of measures need to be taken into account when making judgments about schools, rather than basing it on one set of results from one year group of pupils.