New plans for GCSEs

11 November 2013

GCSEs are the latest strand of the education system to be restructured and reformed – both by the Department for Education and by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England). In June both bodies ran open consultations on their plans. This month they reported on the resulting decisions.

Ofqual Annnouncements

Ofqual has now announced that the format for GCSEs will change. It has published an outline structure that will come into force in 2016 and will affect English Literature, English Language and the EBacc subjects in the first instance. Here is a link to the main documents.

Key features of the new GCSEs in England will include:

  • a new grading scale that uses the numbers 1 – 9 to identify levels of performance, with 9 being the top level. Students will get a U where performance is below the minimum required to pass the GCSE;
  • a fully linear structure, with all assessment at the end of the course and content not divided into modules;

  • exams as the default method of assessment, except where they cannot provide valid assessment of the skills required;

  • exams only in the summer, apart from English language and Maths, where there will also be exams in November for students who were at least 16 on the preceding 31st August. Ofqual is still considering whether November exams should be available in other subjects for students of this age.

Anyone recognise this as precisely similar to the government’s planned rubric for English Baccalaureate Certificates?

What are the implications for the arts?

It’s important to note that these are changes to ‘English’ GCSEs. It remains to be seen whether Ministers in Northern Ireland and Wales will make similar reforms – meaning that the GCSE might become a different qualification depending on what country you sit it in.

In the Ofqual summary it says: ‘in some subjects, not all skills that are intrinsic to the subject can be assessed by exam, so non-exam assessment will continue where necessary. Decisions will be taken on a subject-by-subject basis.’

It is obviously critical that arts GCSEs are developed with appropriate assessment structures and it is critical that the new GCSE structure does not become so narrow that cultural disciplines are excluded.

This announcement from Ofqual follows a leak in the Times that suggested that 'softer' subjects may no longer be counted within the GCSE ‘brand’. The article particularly names Drama amongst the subjects being scrutinised and makes statements about GCSEs needing to be for academic subjects only.

In response to this speculation, Ofqual Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey said:

“We know that there has been some concern in recent days about whether some subjects will continue to be available. We plan to consult in the New Year on principles for allowing subjects to be included as GCSEs. The aim is not to stop important, established subjects, but rather to make sure everyone is clear about what a GCSE is and is not.”

The CLA is very concerned about any suggestion that arts subjects should not be GCSEs because of the ensuing impact this would have on their status and provision by specialist teachers in schools.

DfE Announcements

On the 1st of November, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education announced the following changes to the content of English Literature, English Language and Maths GCSEs. These will be introduced for first teaching in September 2015. You can read the DfE response to consultation here.

The English Literature specification has been revised slightly since the draft published in August and we are delighted to see that the unhelpful line ‘Digital texts must not be included’ has now been removed. Other changes include the incorporation of the requirement to study ‘Romantic Poetry’ (which was stand alone) into a wider poetry category.

Within English Language the speaking and listening requirement will be ‘reported on but un-weighted’ in terms of assessment - leading to real fears from schools and specialists that this important aspect of children’s communication development will cease to be prioritised. The proportion of marks allocated to spelling and grammar will also be increased to 20% of the grade.

You can read the English and Media Centre’s detailed assessment of the implications of these changes here, and the statement from the National Association of Teaching English here. You can also see articles by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian and from the Stage.

You may remember that the summer consultation on GCSE content also included the other EBacc subjects, these specifications have not yet been finalised and Gove states that they will not be introduced for teaching until 2016. However, the response document does summarise the feedback that they received for these subjects and it is encouraging to see that the feedback on History highlights a need for independent investigative and extended study, as well as emphasising the need for students to develop critical and analytical historical skills.

What does this mean for the other arts subjects?

The Department for Education is not specifying the content for any further subjects, and, as now, the responsibility for this will lie with Ofqual.

Arts Council England has been working with CCSkills to research the current status of arts GCSEs and develop some new draft specifications. Once finalised, they will present them to Ofqual and the DfE. We’re running a number of consultations this month to ascertain whether these specifications are fit for purpose, and we will publish our findings in the New Year.