Each new week seems to bring news of yet another new idea; education secretary Michael Gove’s buzz word ‘rigour’ in schools is becoming part of general currency but what does this mean for our children and do we need it? Deirdre Rowe, deputy head (academic) of St Leonards-Mayfield School in East Sussex, said:

“There is already scope in the system for academic stretching and fulfilment. This would be greatly enhanced if teachers had more time to cover subjects in greater depth. I would prefer a system which facilitated depth of study in fewer areas.”

And therein lies a problem: it is difficult to see through the mass of headlines at what is happening in schools – of course, the majority expect ‘rigorous’ standards and strive to get the best out of their pupils. The government consultation ends on 3 September, but it can be tricky to negotiate what is a ‘plan’ or ‘proposal’ and what actually becomes policy. Worried parents should add concerns to their ‘to discuss’ list when meeting teachers at consultation meetings.

There is a general acceptance among educators that the GCSE exam system is flawed and needed to be changed. For example, some schools encouraged students to re-sit exams to better their grades (and school performance tables!). This has now been scrapped, along with modular exams (taken at the end of each unit of study), which have been replaced by ‘linear’ exams (taken at the end of the course). In addition, five per cent of marks in exams are now given for spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) in English literature, geography, history and religious studies (this will account for 20 per cent of marks in the language paper).

Further reform is planned from September 2016. GCSEs will feature more ‘challenging subject content’ and the pass mark will be harder to attain. Some subjects (yet to be identified) may offer extension papers for the more able; the aim is to reassure educators, the government and employers that students with a certain grade have absolutely reached a level of ability in their subjects.

So what does this look like? In his consultation letter, Mr Gove said:

“Examinations must test extended writing in subjects such as English and history, have fewer bite-sized and overly structured questions, and in mathematics and science have a greater emphasis on quantitative problem-solving.”

English will be split into literature and language papers, there will be more essay-based questions and there will be a new grading structure running from 8 (high) to 1 (low) which seems to have been added as a cosmetic way to differentiate the new system from the old. Deirdre comments: “I can’t see that this will make any difference at all – papers will still be ranked and there will be grade boundaries.”

But is it fair to all pupils that GCSEs are demanding and rigorous? Critics say that less academic pupils will be disadvantaged but Deirdre believes Mr Gove’s ‘demanding’ approach is broadly correct. She told Wealden Times:

“It is important for all educators that what they teach is demanding, fulfilling and academically stretching. However, whatever reforms happen need to be age appropriate and realistic in terms of the amount of work which needs to be covered in a relatively short period of time.”

Mayfield offers girls an all-round education where results and opportunities are given equal weight. What happens outside of the classroom will become more important as grades rise and employers and universities seek to differentiate one A grade student from the next. A big change in exams – long overdue – is the emphasis on correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. Primary pupils have just sat the first SPaG tests at the end of year 6, heralding a new start in the importance of knowing the basics of the mother tongue. But is the five per cent mark allocation in GCSEs too much? Deirdre says: “This is enough – it makes the point that SPaG is important and therefore worthy of attention but any more turns the exam into an English exam rather than the subject being studied.”

And what difference has the move towards linear exams made? Deirdre explains: “The reduction of coursework has meant that assessment is now more exam orientated and therefore a test of memory rather than the application of knowledge. I doubt that many of the facts learned to answer exam questions will be remembered and would advocate the use of knowledge to work out subject specific questions rather than simply regurgitating the facts. This is not consistent across exam boards which is an area that needs to be addressed.

“All staff are already challenged to provide robust schemes of work which encourage girls to think for themselves and provide a love for their subjects rather than an exam ‘hoop-jumping’ mentality.

“We are currently reviewing our GCSE provision including the number of subjects studied, the time allocation for each subject and the continued provision of a Key Stage 3 programme which prepares girls well for the challenges of GCSE, A Level and university studies.”

And is there any evidence that the changes disadvantage less academic pupils? Deirdre says:

“Any changes which reward memory will disadvantage less able pupils. The reduction of coursework will inevitably result in more marks being awarded for exams and disadvantaging less academic pupils.”

But Mayfield ensures it supports girls of all levels, as is evidenced in the recent Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) report which noted: “Teachers take great care to adopt an inclusive approach in the classroom while employing a range of strategies to ensure that all pupils including the gifted and talented achieve their best. These strategies include one-to-one support in quiet moments, provision of extension work, use of individual educational plans, and a range of teaching methods.”

Ultimately, if you are concerned about changes to education provision, speak to the school. Mayfield also won praise in its ISI report for its excellent links with parents. Deirdre adds: “We have always worked with girls on an individual basis and will respond to any changes which happen by looking at how they affect the girls studying for these exams.”

For a comprehensive look at the changes, you can see the consultation paper at http://bit.ly/13ZdiSF

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