mod·ule [moj-ool] noun a separable component, frequently one that is interchangeable with others, for assembly into units of differing size, complexity, or function.

The current furore over a small reduction in GCSE English grades this summer presages a paradigm shift in the educational world.  For many years the steadily improving results at GCSE have been supported by the notion of modularity; the skills and content of any given subject can be broken down into smaller units which can be tested separately and at different times and the marks re-combined to give an overall grade. The notion proved popular.

Students enjoyed being able to concentrate on a smaller range of material in revision, found that receiving objective feedback on their progress during the course was comforting and motivating and welcomed the reduction in stress associated with avoiding high stakes testing at the end of Year 11.  The teachers discovered that the feedback of module results helped them to target areas for improvement with their students before the often inevitable re-sit designed to boost the grade.  Examination boards rejoiced in the larger number (and size) of fees which could be charged for more and shorter exams and in the opportunities for pupils to take the same exam several times; the difficulty in accurately and separately grading papers taken, for some schemes, on a possible 6 occasions through a GCSE course contributed to ‘grade inflation’ to the delight of students, teachers and politicians.  Michael Gove’s inconsiderate decision last December that all written papers should be taken at the end of the course, beginning with current Year 10 students, has spoiled the fun.

I have always been somewhat suspicious of both the philosophy and the practicalities of modularity and have only allowed modules to be taken early at Birkdale when the case appeared particularly compelling.  From a philosophical standpoint it is clear that the skills associated with a particular subject, such as logical thinking in Mathematics or perhaps the ability to develop an argument or assess the credibility of a source in English or History, do not divide neatly into different parts; in the learning of a language the idea that speaking, listening, reading and writing could be regarded as unconnected seems artificial although they are assessed separately.  The content of many subjects also defies easy partition, producing some contrived divisions and often preventing the students from appreciating deep and subtle connections between different topic areas: the latter is surely a key ingredient of desirable, higher level thinking.  In the sciences some topics, such as the mains electricity supply in Physics, occur in all 3 of the modules, a tacit admission of failure for modularity.  Finally, the steady increase in candidate maturity through the GCSE course means that the later the students take the tests the better they do.  This seems to outweigh the advantages of being able to revise in small chunks.  From a practical point of view, placing the exams at the end of the course means that teachers are free to introduce topics at the best moment, rather than being constrained by the need to cover the topics needed for just the next module, and to dwell on the connections between different ideas.  This is a crucial professional freedom and allows real creativity in planning and delivering lessons, a consideration of great significance to those of us who believe that the purpose of education extends well beyond the undoubtedly important task of achieving high GCSE grades.  Time for teaching and learning is also gained as lessons do not have to be earmarked for revision before each exam session and students are spared the relentless stress of continuous examination, stretching for as long as 5 years from Year 9 until Upper Sixth.  The students also avoid both the ‘do and forget’ mentality inculcated by modularity and the ‘I can always re-sit’ thought which drains urgency and focus from revision efforts.

Emboldened by his own decisiveness, the relentlessly determined Secretary of State for Education is intent on further reform of the GCSE papers themselves to try to promote a more rigorous assessment of the students’ grasp of a particular subject.  The freedom to examine any part of the subject in any paper allows the examination boards to use synoptic questions which require candidates to link together and apply knowledge from several parts of the syllabus.  Reform along these lines seems likely.  As an independent school Birkdale has been able to pre-empt these developments by choosing International GCSE (IGCSE or ‘Certificate’) qualifications which often include a better variety of questions than their modular counterparts in fewer, longer papers.  Alas, as always in educational reform, the pace of change seems too rapid, driven by the approach of the next parliamentary election or Michael Gove’s possible promotion to a greater office of state rather than by any rational systemic consideration.  The resulting scheme may be hasty and potentially ill-considered but the end of modules at GCSE, at least for more able students, is to be welcomed.