As a visiting lecturer, this author was once embroiled in a case of plagiarism many years ago – it revolved around the student’s interpretation of the project and, simultaneously, demonstrated the possibilities of unbounded ingenuity and capacity to appear highly capable without accomplishing much understanding of the subject at hand. This is, essentially, an illustration of how controlled assessment for GCSEs can be subject to abuse. Fundamentally, such a system enables teaching and, therefore, assessment to focus on results rather than learning, hence the Coalition Government’s early decision to move towards examination based GCSEs with mathematics, English language and English literature being pioneered this year.
There is also the wider problem of ‘gaming’ to be addressed. With league tables and other forms of pressure on schools to deliver, temptations to find routes to better outcomes through increasingly targeted approaches to teaching and assessment might be difficult to resist. Quite apart from the easing of such pressures through these reforms, the workload for teachers in preparation and marking should not be missed in the subjects proceeding down this route.
Another thrust of the reforms is the introduction of Progress 8. This is designed to measure the performance of students but also the progress students make as they go thorough secondary school. The thinking behind Progress 8 is about designing a system where there should be little or no motivation for schools to concentrate on one cohort – notably, for instance, students needing to achieve at least a ‘C’ in the old parlance. The risk is schools and students will simply – if involuntarily – move to the next gaming opportunity.
These reforms amount to a series of incremental adjustments to a system purporting to be a rational policy with defined objectives – school and pupil improvement – and mechanisms intended to bring these laudable aims to fruition. Some of the early concerns already expressed such as a likely narrowing of curriculum choices, where disadvantaged, lower-ability intakes are compared to students in affluent areas with supportive home milieus, and the need to incorporate factors other than prior attainment, all have resonance.
A more fundamental question is about the wisdom of relying on GCSEs in the first place. The history of testing at 16 is peppered with efforts to grapple with the twin struggles of providing a broad range of skills for a modernising economy, and attempting to avoid the perennial problem of having too many young people with insufficient qualifications to take them to their next logical step. The purpose of education surely must be to equip all young people with tools to be economically and socially active.