Qualification ‘Reform’ – look before you leap
The idea of an exam baccalaureate has been around for several decades, with considerable support. However despite the use of the name for Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate performance measure, the idea of an over arching qualification has never been adopted. This article considers the reasons why this is the case and why a Royal Commission or similar process of debate would be needed to achieve an exam bacc. Author – Richard Pring
Beware too much haste
The current arguments for a new English Baccalaureate are persuasive, and I do not disagree with the reasons usually given for such a change, especially in relation to the extended leaving age of formal education and training to 18 and the need to think of a coherent educational experience from 14 to 18.
In that respect, it is important to remember that major developments to the examinations structure in England over several decades have reflected: first, the gradual extension of the school leaving age; second, the accompanying need for all the leavers to have formal recognition of what they have achieved; third, recognition of the diversity of such achievements. Therefore, to reflect the present extension of compulsory education and training from age 16 (when GCSE was the leaving qualification for most) to 18, it would seem necessary, first, to mark those achievements for everyone with a universally recognised qualification at 18, and, second, in such a qualification, to respect the diversity of those achievements. Moreover, such recognition cannot be trapped within the false dualism of ‘academic and vocational’. Such a dualism does not make logical sense, and moreover it perpetuates the ‘inequality of esteem’ for different sorts of achievement. Therefore, the establishment of a unitary and overarching qualification at 18 – a Baccalaureate – would seem the correct way forward.
However, my reservations with current proposals, are not with the overall aim, but with the mode of proceeding. My concern arises from reflection upon the history of changes and ‘new initiatives’ within the evolving system of qualifications. We need to learn from the past – both successes and failures.
For example, in anticipation of the school leaving age to 16 (finally achieved in 1972), there were several reports (Crowther in 1958, Beloe in 1960, Newsom in 1963), and much curriculum development from the newly formed Schools Council, before the Certificate of Secondary Education successfully began in 1965 – the very first time that a publicly funded examination was available for those deemed to be below O Level ability. Many of the 20 Examination Bulletins and a series of Working Papers from the newly established Schools Council were, over a period of several years, devoted to the development of the new examination.
Again, the ‘merging’ of GCE O Level and the CSE into a unified school leaving qualification, viz. the GCSE, followed many years of deliberation and reports (for example, the 1978 Waddell Commission School Examinations, the 1987 HMI ‘Red Book’ Curriculum 11-16) before its inauguration in 1988. Side by side with these developments, there developed qualifications thought more suitable for those motivated by ‘pre-vocational courses’ based on the occupational interests of those who were soon to move into employment. Excellent curriculum thinking, especially by the Further Education Unit (FEU), went into the development of these courses – but each was short-lived. CGLI 365 was superseded by CPVE, superseded by DoVE, superseded by GNVQ, superseded by Ed Balls’ 14-19 Diplomas (‘the qualification of choice for everyone’) which lasted three years before its slow death – despite its merits.
Within the current GCSE and GCE A level, there have been many changes (for example, re-grading of achievement from A-E to 1-9, decoupling of AS qualification from the full A Level qualification, removal of practical science from contributing to final grades, creation and then quick abandonment of ALCAB). These changes baffle employers, universities and teachers who have to implement them. Indeed, partly to escape such changes and to preserve a qualification which is widely trusted (and beyond the reach of political interference) the majority of independent schools take the International GCSE (IGCSE), thereby creating a two tier system – one for the independent schools and another for the maintained and the state schools.
We have also witnessed several well argued proposals, which share many of the aims of those advocating the Baccalaureate, but which have failed to take root, for example:
- Dearing Report on post-16 in 1994 (proposing three broad pathways – (i) craft leading to NVQ, (ii) broad pre-vocational leading to GNVQ, (iii) academic leading to A Level);
- Moser’s ‘National Commission’ Report in 1993 ‘Learning to Succeed’;
- Tomlinson Report in 2004 proposing an English Baccalaureate’s group award with four levels of attainment;
- Nuffield Review in 2009 – again arguing for a Baccalaureate.
We need to ask why these well argued proposals – particularly Tomlinson which received wide acclamation – failed to be implemented, lest yet new proposals, whatever their merits, suffer the same fate. We need to ask, too, why so many changes made with the best of intentions fail to survive before yet further changes are seen to be needed.
The point is that changes to the examination structure challenge well-entrenched political or popular assumptions. Or, if implemented, such changes almost inevitably result in unforeseen consequences which lead to constant but temporary repair work. Rather is it the case that (as shown from the past) long-lasting educational developments are generally preceded by a prolonged period of deliberation, engaged in systematically, calling upon relevant research, seeking agreement and co-operation across the political spectrum, anticipating the easily unforeseen consequences of the reforms. Royal Commissions of the 19th century provide examples. Newcastle Report of 1861, leading to the Forster Act of 1870 (which provided the framework for a national system of elementary education), followed two years of deliberation. Bryce Report in 1895, leading to the Balfour Act of 1902 and long-lasting reforms, followed two years of deliberation. Crowther Report of 1958 followed three years of deliberation. Beloe report of 1960 (extending publicly funded exams below O Level) followed two years of deliberation. Robbins Report of 1963 on Higher Education followed three years of deliberation.
The message is clear. Whatever the strength of the current arguments for a Baccalaureate, success will be achieved only after details have been thoroughly hammered out over a prolonged period.
Back, therefore, to something like a Royal Commission or a Central Advisory Council, with wide representation from those who are affected by the changes: schools, further education, universities, employers, parents, students, examination boards, and research foundations. Such a Commission or Council would take evidence and deliberate, as in the past, for about two years before producing a comprehensive report which would have widespread agreement, the confidence of all concerned and a more permanent future.
In what follows I detail the many different aspects which, in the light of experience and yet in the failure to be recognised, would lead to yet another failed ‘reform’.
Issues to be addressed
(i) Aims of education and accountability
Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training began with the question: ‘What counts as an educated 19 year-old in this day and age?’ – requiring an answer which would do justice to the range of qualities that, through formal learning, enable all young people to develop an understanding of the physical, social and moral worlds they have inherited, moral qualities, a sense of personal worth and dignity, and civic virtues essential to a democracy. A valid accountability of schools requires such a broad spectrum of aims.
Problems which need to be addressed, therefore, lie in the restriction (due to the current system of accountability) to narrow forms of academic achievement and the consequent failure to recognise the range of qualities which are equally important not only in personal development but also in subsequent civic and working lives.
(ii) Getting agreement from schools, universities, employers, FE, political spectrum
There are several competing systems. Many private schools have chosen the OCR’s International GCSE (IGCSE) which is seen as more academically demanding as well as having much valued international reach. In addition, about 150 schools take the Cambridge Pre-U examinations. Many others take the International Baccalaureate. Arising from such diversity and from so many changes, two systems (GCSE and IGCSE) have arisen and re-enforce a two-tier system of schooling, viz. namely, the private and the public sectors. Furthermore, those who ‘recruit’ from schools, namely, universities and employers, find it difficult to understand what the qualifications ‘qualify’ the candidate to do. How do these qualifications meet, for example, the employers’ needs? How might changes meet Universities’ needs? Mr. Gove established ALCAB (‘A Level Content Advisory Board’) through which universities might be involved in reforms; but his successor abolished it. Government de-coupled AS Level from A Level, but universities complained since AS Level (as an integral part of A Level) was seen to be important in the selection of candidates.
(iii) Attaching importance to communication skills
Bullock Report (1975), Language for Life, argued persuasively for focus on ‘oracy’ – capacity to communicate fluently through speech. Such a capacity was emphasised in the development of CSE in the 1960s together with the modes of assessment and of moderating teachers’ judgements. Such oracy is no longer part of the examined curriculum. Hence, problem to be faced is that of restoring the recognition of such communications skills within a reformed system of qualifications, for presently it is a matter, not of worthwhile aims determining assessment, but of assessment determining curriculum content Such capacities now play no or little part in the examinations
(iv) Attaching importance to practical skills and intelligence
Practical intelligence (ability to do and make, to identify and correct practical problems) is as demanding and as important as the so-called ‘academic intelligence’. Yet it is constantly regarded as ‘second class’ in the educational system. ‘Design and Technology’ was not included in the EBacc subjects. But interestingly the BTEC qualification remains a sought-after qualification and one would need to see how that is retained in any reform. But the problems are two-fold. First, there is a widespread cultural disdain for practice-oriented subjects as opposed to those which are regarded as academic – a disdain which has been seen as a problem ever since Commissions and Acts of Parliament in the 19th century attempted to rectify it. Second, we have seen the removal of practical experiments from the GCSE and A Level science grading, leading to ‘great potential damage’ according to the Welcome Trust (echoed by the Nuffield Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and the Association of School Science). Ofqual has said that practical assessment failed to distinguish good candidates and exam questions could not test skills learned in the lab. Again, a matter of assessment determining curriculum.
(v) Teaching to the test and league tables
There is considerable evidence on the ‘gaming’ and teaching to the test which now takes place so that the learners might attain the grades and schools might rise in the league tables (see Mansell, 2007, Learning by Numbers). Ofqual’s statistics (Dec. 2014) point to the rise of 61% in the number of schools and colleges found guilty of malpractice last year, with 217 penalty notices issued, one for 30 schools and colleges. The 2004 Smith Report, Mathematics Counts argues that even those who achieved high scores in maths A Level lacked the understanding which enabled them to proceed to university degree courses. A problem therefore is how to devise a system of examining which does not lead to ‘teaching to the test’ and to the ‘gaming’ which currently occurs – and indeed to the advantages gained by those who can afford the intensive coaching for top university places. Problems are exacerbated by textbooks produced by the respective Boards.
(vi) Modular versus linear course
The Government has recommended a removal of the modular approach to examinations on the grounds that it leads to a ‘re-sit culture’ (part of the ‘gaming’ to raise scores) and that it breaks up the gradual accumulation of deeper knowledge. However, many believe that (a) such a break-up of the development of knowledge is more beneficial and motivating to many learners, and (b) where examinations are ‘criterion referenced’, the opportunity to try again until one has acquired the requisite knowledge or skill is to be welcome. Such a disagreement needs to be resolved in any new system.
(vii) Unexpected consequences and need for large timescale for reforms
The many changes to the examination system point to the need, following widespread investigations and experience, of the possible unintended consequences of changes made. A serious example of such was the 2000 curriculum ‘reform’ of A Level resulting in a drop of 20% in the number proceeding to take mathematics at A Level. Following the failings after the introduction of the new-style AS levels in 2001, the DES warned
We recognize absolutely that there are lessons to be learned for the future about
The way in which we implement major reforms … Detailed planning and
extensive trialling are essential so that we can be confident that all systems are in
place and teachers and examiners are fully trained in new requirements before
they are introduced.
(viii) One or several Examination Boards?
Currently there are three GCSE and A Level Exam Boards for England and one for Wales, plus BTEC, ASDAN and ‘vocational qualifications’ Boards. Each is an independent company, although they need to abide by Government requirements if they are to receive public funding for those entering for their qualifications. (OCR’s IGCSE is not recognized for funding and league table purposes). Problems are raised concerning competition between Boards and the danger of lower standards due to competition. One solution has been the allocation of different subjects to different Boards, the competition thereby lying in the quality of what is being proposed by each Board. The argument for the preservation of different Boards is that the expertise of each encourages innovation.
(ix) Grading system.
There are two difficulties to be faced: first, the respective roles of ‘criterion referencing’ and ‘norm referencing'; second, the relation between old and new systems. Initially GCSE was graded A to E where each grade was supposedly criterion referenced, and where C Grade was seen as equivalent to top grade of CSE. It is important, when examinations are changed, that those using the exams (employers and universities) know the rough equivalence between old and new. There are difficulties which need to be addressed. Despite exams supposedly being criterion referenced, in fact norm referencing helped decisions on grade allocations. Furthermore, over time, FtoD grades of GCSE indicate no longer what examinees can do but rather ‘failed GCSE’. In recent Government proposals changing grades from AtoF to 1to9 needs to reconcile the two grading systems – to demonstrate ‘comparable outcomes’. This was to be achieved through a statistical technique based on norm referencing, viz. National Reference Test, developed by the Boards in 2002 to ensure the first cohort of new A Levels were not disadvantaged and the national proportion of students gaining each grade remained roughly the same to curb grade inflation. But no Board has sought the contract because of technical difficulties.
(x) Equivalence across strands and levels
Presumably the advantage of a Baccalaureate over the present system is that quite separate systems (dubiously called ‘academic’, ‘pre-vocational’ and ‘vocational’) will be brought together in a single system with no doubt distinctive strands and levels. It is difficult to see how the equivalence between these strands and levels will overcome the difficulties which were encountered in the creation of the NQF (National Qualifications Framework) then superseded by the QCF (Qualifications Credit Framework).
(xi) Relations with other parts of the UK
Wales has introduced the Welsh Bacc, Northern Ireland retains GCSE and A Level, Scotland has its ‘Highers’. It is necessary to show how a new system ties up with those of other countries within the UK and the IB. Are there lessons to be learnt?
(xii) Who should control the curriculum?
The 1944 Education Act bequeathed to the Minister of Education no control over the curriculum. The 1988 Education Act reversed all that and created a National Curriculum ultimately to be agreed by the Secretary of State. Mr Gove dictated detailed content of the history curriculum 5 to 16, including key characters worth detailed study. He withdrew Clive of India after he was described as nothing other than ‘a sociopathic corrupt thug’.. What degree of central control would be advised by those advocating the Baccalaureate?
Advocates of a unitary system of 14-18 qualifications must learn from the past. Success will arise only after a considerable period of examining the problems arising from past reforms and after addressing the issues which have been briefly outlined above.
For more detailed arguments, reference is made to two documents produced by SOSS, The English Baccalaureate: a Tangled Web scrutinised (2013) and Exam Reform – Unresolved Issues (2014). Both are available via the SOSS website.