The Department of Education is currently consulting on changes to GCSE.  You can have your say by using the following link; interestingly, many of the more important changes are simply announced as a background to the consultation on the finer details. .  A consultation on changes to A level has closed recently with the welcome announcement of an end to January modules the first step in reform and more radical changes likely to be announced soon.  The overall shape of the secondary curriculum is still being reviewed with drafts now being leaked to critical howls.  The primary curriculum is similarly under review.

I consider myself reasonably unflappable but the timescale for such sweeping change is tight enough to make me feel uneasy.  The GCSE changes are likely to be particularly radical and will be introduced in some, though not all, subjects in September 2015.  They are expected to focus students upon a narrower range of subjects than at present: Mathematics, English, History, Geography, the Sciences and Modern Foreign Languages.  League table pressures will compel many schools to increase the curriculum time allocated to these subjects, squeezing out subjects such as Religious Studies, Music, Drama, Design Technology and Art; the implications for educating students nationally in the creative subjects are clear and somewhat negative.  The Education Secretary also intends to focus on the needs of the most academically able in the examinations in order to boost the country’s educational ranking internationally; whilst this may work to the advantage of schools such as Birkdale, students of modest ability in other schools may find the examinations too difficult to allow them to show what they know.  Currently GCSE examinations are tiered with students having the choice of a foundation paper targeted at grades G to C or a higher paper targeted at A* to C.  The new qualifications will have a single paper; if the questions are sufficiently challenging to discriminate between A* and A grade candidates it seems likely that weaker candidates will be unable to understand or tackle the questions.  The lack of well-respected vocational qualifications for students who are less academically inclined continues to be a national disgrace.  January modules at A level will cease from September 2013 with fresh A level specifications appearing in some subjects for students beginning their Lower Sixth studies in September 2014.  The revised primary and secondary curriculums are both due for introduction in September 2014.

The Department for Education has therefore undertaken to review and change every section of the 5-18 curriculum at the same time, a task never before attempted.  To give some idea of the magnitude of the undertaking, the last significant reform of A levels was entitled Curriculum 2000.  This introduced modules and separated A levels into AS and A2 components against a background of near-continuity in GCSE provision.  Consultations on this change began after the Dearing review was published in 1996.  Proposals were then followed by a full programme of pilots and reviews and the new courses were introduced (1 year late) in September 2001.  The total period of 4-5 years from conception to first teaching allowed sufficient time to ensure that the new arrangements ran very smoothly.  OfQual, nominally the guardian of standards, has decided not to pilot any of the new qualifications this time round, presumably because there is insufficient time before the next general election to carry out proper trials. The current scheme seems destined to introduce mismatches between phases with gaps, duplication and all manner of inconsistencies.  There is also the distinct possibility that the curricula for the separate phases will be unteachable in the time allowed and the examinations too difficult, given the failure to pilot.  Interestingly, the new scheme will only apply in England; Scotland has a very different system and Wales and Northern Ireland have their own separate reviews which may come to different conclusions.  Potentially, therefore, from 2014, students in the 4 different sections of the United Kingdom will be following 4 different curricula and examination regimes even though they are competing with each other for UK university places.  This assumes that the students have not become disillusioned and decided to pursue their university study abroad (see previous blog entry).

An external observer might note that a better review mechanism would be to begin at the bottom with the primary curriculum and then move upwards building each phase upon the skills and knowledge acquired by pupils in the phase below.  Alternatively, one might start at the top, defining the standards to be reached at the end of the U6 and then moving systematically downwards to work out what pupils will need to know or be able to do at different ages.  In any case, my own view is that such sweeping change is unnecessary and unhelpful.  A limited and considered review of GCSEs and A levels might have led to the end of modular examinations and to a modest reform of the structure of the papers to promote, in the students, a deeper understanding of the connections between different topics within each subject.  It might also have commanded the support of much of the educational community, the constituency that will have to implement the new schemes and ultimately the people upon whom the success or otherwise of any new initiative will depend.  Furthermore, time, resource and political will would have been left over to focus on securing real improvements to the examination system.  A recent HMC (the organisation representing many leading independent schools including Birkdale) study was well received by the government and has demonstrated just how unfit for purpose the current arrangements are and how many students have simply been let down by poor marking and examining.

One of the joys of being a Head Master in an independent school is that I am free to avoid most of the possible disasters.  Birkdale is able to follow a distinctive, proprietary and balanced primary and secondary curriculum which gives a suitable weight to creative subjects, pursues intellectual rigour and has at least some choice over qualifications at GCSE and A level.  The likely content of the new curricula for England and the motivations for change raise some interesting philosophical and educational questions which I shall pursue in future blog entries.