Back to Top

A solution to the dilemma of Key Stage 4 exams reform

Michael Gove is one of those reforming politicians who galvanises support by polarising opinion. In the media frenzy surrounding the announcement of the government’s reforms to Key Stage 4 (KS4) qualifications since Monday, it is unsurprising that there hasn’t been much place for intelligent comment offering qualified support to his proposals. While recognising the concerns that the Minister seeks to address, there are good reasons why even those who share his concerns about the utility of GCSEs, and what should be done with the curriculum to address them, should feel some unease about his proposals. Fortunately, there is a market-based solution that fits squarely within the Coalition parameters, which would be feasible if the Conservatives were to be more conservative and the Liberal Democrats more liberal. Having successfully obscured the complex of factors contributing to the rising proportion of pupils achieving the highest grades, and misleadingly attributed the trend to competition on standards (for which there is no substantive evidence), the Secretary of State succeeded yesterday in presenting a single qualification per subject, introduced via franchising, as the only way to ‘raise the level of challenge’ of KS4 exams. Though this might seem like a tidy solution, it does not escape the essential difficulties of the national qualifications project, predicated as it is on the commitment to ‘giving the same opportunities to students of all abilities’ (as it was put in the Evening Standard on Monday). Designing one exam to accommodate the needs of all learners is extremely difficult, and not a challenge that the boards will relish. This is because they can foresee the furore that will result when it becomes clear that the outcomes of these ‘naturally selective’ tests for the majority in the middle to low ability range will be determined by their answers to a relatively small number of questions – raising fresh questions about whether these students have been given adequate opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and ability. In order to get around this problem, you need a much longer exam than the standard three hour version. The new exams then may well do a better job of differentiating between those at the top end of the ability spectrum, but in the process will likely create a new problem. Differentiating between those that do and those that will not make whatever ‘level’ is regarded as a pass in the eyes of the employers and FE/training providers who will use the information the tests provide is going to become much more difficult. For some employers this may even give rise to situations in which they will not have enough candidates to choose from. This is likely to be exacerbated by the enticements to take up of EBacc subjects and the corresponding limitations on the number of non-GCSEs that can be taken. If all candidates end up taking the same qualifications, and there’s little to distinguish the non-descript grades achieved by one from another, what will employers’ and further education selectors have to go on to make their decisions? The consequences for learners are likely to be even more serious. Of course there are things that all young people need to know, and skills they need to acquire, for the possibility of their being able to lead successful and fulfilling lives, and we need a system in which all are encouraged to strive to fulfil their potential, but choice is important for ownership of opportunity. There needs to be scope for young people to explore different subjects. Assessment should facilitate a process by which they discover and are enabled to play to their strengths. For all the frustrations that have been expressed in recent years with a system overly geared towards ensuring that young people get good grades at examination, ministers cannot afford to dismiss the formative role of assessment in learning. So the pendulum swings. Is there a way to achieve equilibrium – to bring the needs of employers and further education selectors into clearer focus, while still ensuring that qualifications can be accessed by all and open up a range of different opportunities to young people?  In our paper released today, When Qualifications Fail: Reforming 14-19 assessment, I argue that such can only be achieved in a competitive open market, independent of government interference. Politically, this solution fits squarely within the free and open market traditions of both Coalition partners and, as with most genuinely competitive markets, it is one that will drive up quality also. Competition on this basis is crucial for raising the quality of provision, stimulating innovation, and for diversity in product offer. It is not competition per se, but the necessity of complying with the framework of the present system, which has held down standards. Bearing in mind the history of secondary school qualifications in this country, and the international standing of English (private) qualifications in wider markets, there is no reason to suppose that providers would not act to safeguard their own standards were they able to do so. The government may assume an arbitration role through franchising, but it has not the incentive, let alone the ability, for the level of engagement with end-users required. Though the present government, in its emphasis on the importance of a traditional, well-rounded curriculum, doesn’t think a lot about innovation and isn’t terribly interested in encouraging diversity in qualifications, these are important because employers’, and further and higher education needs are not all the same, and because the needs of our economy and society are always changing. If content is to remain relevant, assessment developers need to be in close dialogue with end-users, and with schools, to ensure their respective interests are properly co-ordinated. In that awarding bodies would have an interest in working to keep the talent pool full, and maximising their market share in the process, in an open market scenario one would expect them to strive for maximum accessibility without compromise to standards, as well as to differentiate their offerings more, and to develop niche qualifications also. Unshackled from the present framework and allowed to compete openly, qualifications providers would have every incentive to close engagement with end-user and learn interests: they cannot and would not succeed (or ultimately survive) without engaging those interests. Moves towards further consolidation via franchising are not only unjustified therefore, they are also a poor substitute for the dynamic market alternative. CMRE's discussion paper, When qualifications fail: Reforming 14-19 examinations, published today, is available for download here.

Blog Category: 
About the author
James Croft is Director of the Centre for Market Reform of Education and the co-author of the CMRE discussion paper 'When Qualifications Fail: Reforming 14-19 assessment' (2012) and previously of 'Profit-making free schools' (2011).