Who are the new GCSEs for?

The first post on this blog, in December 2012, was a tirade against the English Baccalaureate Certificates proposed by the then education secretary Michael Gove. In my first foray into the blogosphere, I was furious with the proposal for two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects and accessible only to some students. Fortunately, Gove saw sense and in February 2013 he performed what Stephen Twigg called “a humiliating climb-down” in parliament,  claiming that the reforms were “a bridge too far.” The profession breathed a sigh of relief. I too am mightily relieved that instead of those awful EBCs we now have reformed GCSEs – two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects. Politics, eh?

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

In truth, the most hateful part of the EBC proposal was that low-attaining students would not be able to achieve them and would instead be awarded a “Statement of Achievement” by their school. My cynical side can’t help but think that this was a bluff – a proposal so awful that was always intended for withdrawal so the remaining policy was seen as a  better compromise. At least the reformed GCSEs span the full attainment range and are accessible to all (in theory at least).

One of my other concerns about the EBCs was that, since they were only going to be available in EBacc subjects, they would create a two-tier curriculum favouring those subjects above others (whilst we’re on the subject, why isn’t RE a humanity?) This problem remains. The gradual roll-out of new-style GCSEs to English and Maths first, then other EBacc subjects, has already begun, but the status of other old-style GCSEs is still to be decided by Ofqual. All the rhetoric around the qualifications system has effectively devalued any A*-G GCSEs, and this was reinforced in July this year when the DfE confirmed that only reformed 1-9 graded GCSE qualifications would count in performance tables from 2017. The press release comfortingly stated:

“Schools may still enter pupils early for ‘legacy’ qualifications, but if they do pupils will need to either take the new GCSE in 2017 or progress to a higher level qualification, such as an AS qualification, for their achievements to count in tables.”

I have written before about this government’s use of the performance tables as a lever for change, and this is another prime example. Clearly, the DfE wants particular curriculum models in schools, favouring the English Baccalaureate route wherever possible. There is a whole raft of other qualifications and curriculum opportunities available, but they are being squeezed out by the fact that they don’t “count in tables.” You could teach alternative Science qualifications, BTECs and iGCSEs or even unexamined enrichment courses, and the students could get a perfectly balanced, rounded education, but if you want Ofsted to know how good you are you’d best stick to the new GCSEs and fill up the buckets in Progress 8 and Attainment 8 for as many students as possible. Woe betide those subjects that don’t make the cut when Ofqual decides which subjects get to be new-style GCSEs.

The summer holiday has given me enough time to pause and think. Who exactly are the new GCSEs for, anyway? All young people are now required to stay in education or training until they are 18 due to the rise in the participation age. This means that the GCSE is no longer the final qualification any young person will take. They will all go on to something else – A-levels, International Baccalaureate, Pre-U, apprenticeships, diplomas, certificates. The GCSE is an access ticket to the next stage. All the accountability measures for schools are focused on qualifications taken at 16, when all young people have to go on to study to 18. Surely, then, the new GCSEs are more about measuring school performance than they are about valuing the achievements of students?

We’ve been here before. The Key Stage 3 tests in English, Maths and Science, abolished by Labour in 2008 following a marking debacle, only existed to measure school performance. They were statutory and the new GCSEs are not, but you would be either brave or foolhardy not to play the game, such are the accountability stakes. And, as I’m well aware, the new GCSEs are likely to be the most valuable currency for young people to access academic post-16 provision, so we’d be doing learners a disservice not to deliver them. My wider concern is that the curriculum is being squeezed in an accountability stranglehold so that is consists only of those elements which “count in tables” – and that, I think, is wrong.

So what’s the alternative? Well, it is out there. Back in October 2004, the Working Group on 14-19 Reform published its report proposing the replacement of GCSEs and A-Levels with an over-arching diploma. Sir Mike Tomlinson, head of the working group, had established wide consensus for the overarching diploma. He foresaw the raising of the participation age and the need for a coherent qualification and curriculum system which encompassed the 14-19 age range, balancing vocational and academic study.  For many reasons (detailed brilliantly in this BBC report from 2005) the government at the time decided that GCSEs and A-Levels were sacrosanct, and rejected the report’s proposals. This remains, in my view, the single biggest mistake in education policy I can think of (and I’ve seen a few). The diploma that was eventually introduced alongside the existing qualifications was a Frankenstein’s monster already doomed at its inception.

The HTRT Qualifications Framework

Rising from the ashes of this butchered mess, however, is a curriculum and qualifications proposal in the style of Tomlinson that I can really get behind. The Headteachers’ Roundtable have proposed their own qualifications framework – an overarching diploma-style approach incorporating existing qualifications into a true baccalaureate. This wasn’t on the agenda when they met with Tristram Hunt in July this year, and I can’t imagine that there will be much appetite for further curriculum reform after the complete overhaul that has happened over recent years. But it is sorely needed, as the system we are moving to is not fit for purpose and runs the risk of squeezing much that is good, important and necessary out of schooling altogether.

Tony Little – a voice of reason?

This week Tony Little said that the current examination system is “unimaginative [and] little changed from Victorian times…[obliging students] to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.” He concludes that while a sharp focus on performance is a good thing there is more to education than “jostling for position in a league table.” Of course, he doesn’t have to worry about Ofsted, Progress 8, or the new National Curriculum, but when you find yourself agreeing with the Headmaster of Eton maybe it’s a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

The end of coursework

or…What’s assessment for anyway? 

When I took my GCSEs in English and English Literature (in 1991) they were 100% coursework. I wasn’t alone; according to the 2006 Review of GCSE Coursework from QCA (found here) about two-thirds of 16 year olds in the early 1990s were taking GCSE English through syllabuses that had no examinations. Much has changed since then, and all 16 year olds who take GCSE English in summer 2017 will do so following syllabuses with 100% terminal examinations (as announced by Ofqual).

A mindset change

Coursework has been part of my Key Stage 4 experience as a student, trainee, teacher, Head of Department and Senior Leader. Its removal requires a complete shift of mindset. Curriculum design, long and medium term planning in English has always been about fitting the coursework (or latterly controlled assessment tasks) into the two years to form a coherent programme of study around the assessment tasks. No longer. At this point in time, this feels like a blessed relief from the millstone of controlled assessments, and an opportunity to open up curriculum time to learning, but it will feel very different.

A change of gear is needed

A change of gear is needed

It will also require a mindset change for students. I have felt uncomfortable for some time about the prevalent attitude of “will it count towards my GCSE?” amongst students I teach. The unfortunate truth at the moment is that if it does, most will really try and put in every effort. If it’s “just practice” or, heaven forbid, an assignment merely to develop or secure understanding, it doesn’t get the full focus of a “proper assessment”. I will be glad to see the back of this distinction as it will allow and require a full focus on the process of learning in every piece of work throughout the course.

Teacher assessment is best

I genuinely believe that teachers are best placed to make accurate and complete assessments of their students’ abilities. It seems almost ridiculous that I have to state that at all. Teachers spend every lesson with their students and know better than anyone the full range of their achievements within the subject, in much more detail than any examination can hope to discover, no matter how long or rigorous. This will be lost in the terminal exam system. Teacher assessment (in English especially) has snapped under the weight of the accountability framework’s focus upon it. This was recognised in the QCA GCSE_coursework report:

5.44: The environment for GCSE and A levels has changed. Twenty years ago there were no achievement and attainment tables (formerly performance tables), no national or local targets related to examination grades and no link between teachers’ pay and students’ results. The environment now is far more pressured and in these circumstances, it is likely that internal assessment of GCSE and A levels as presently practised has become a less valid form of assessment.

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

This is undoubtedly the case. Teacher assessment is still the best way of assessing student progress and learning (although, as David Didau asserts, measuring learning is a horrifically complex business). It should still be the basis of teaching and learning in the classroom but only if the sole purpose of that teacher assessment is to measure the child’s progress and identify next steps in learning. If the teacher assessment is also serving the purpose of proving progress to senior leaders and external inspectors in order to maintain the school’s standing in performance tables and the teacher’s own salary, then of course there are vested interests at play which will encourage even the most professional professional to err on the side of generosity. And this is how we’ve arrived at our current situation. The accountability and pay systems have rendered the most accurate and helpful form of assessment unreliable and corrupt. Excellent work, policy makers.

Moving forward

I have several tasks as a school leader now to make the most of this new assessment framework.

Jumping through hoops - a necessary evil?

Jumping through hoops – a necessary evil?

  1. To help subject teams re-think curriculum design away from the coursework/controlled assessment structures that have been in place for so long. We will have a lot to learn from Maths and other 100% examined subjects here; we will need to make the most of the time freed up from controlled assessments to teach curriculum content (which is a combination of knowledge and skills, of course).
  2. To decouple teacher assessment from external accountability and pay progression as far as possible, to allow it to be carried out accurately for the benefit of the student’s learning, parents, and teachers themselves to inform planning.
  3. To work with all teachers and students to jump the hoops of the new terminal exams. I hate this part of the job, but recognise that teaching exam technique is vital to success in exams. I will also make every effort to keep this in proportion to the real business of teaching the actual subjects.
  4. To continue to do my best to construct a Key Stage 4 curriculum in the best interests of the learners at my school.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Working with data – the narrative in the numbers

I covet @Ashley_Loynton’s mug

It is a constant source of amusement and bafflement to my colleagues how much I love working with data. As an English specialist I’m not supposed to enjoy the spreadsheets and pie charts quite as much as I do. However, it’s my firm belief that data helps me to be a better teacher, and that my work with data as a member of SLT helps my school become a better school.

The principles of working with data

When I first started blogging one of the first posts I read was Kev Bartle‘s excellent ‘Doing’ Data as a member of SLT. In this post, Kev lays out some excellent principles for the use of data. If you haven’t read it – read it now, then come back. Finished? Good.

I don’t disagree with any of what Kev says in his post, as I’m sure you will see. But here are mine:

  1. Less is more – but don’t hide the rest
  2. Use hard and soft data equally
  3. Look for the narrative in the numbers
  4. Make the data work for you – don’t work for the data

Working with data as a classroom teacher

When I’m in the classroom I collect and use data that is relevant to me. Primarily, this is assessment data from my own subject. For each “proper” piece of assessed work completed it’s essential that I keep track of their attainment related to the assessment objectives, which I do in a spreadsheet. This helps me plan future lessons and target my teaching effectively. If I can see that particular students need more help with a particular part of the assessment, I will try to meet that need. Essentially I’m looking for answers in the assessments: what have I missed? What didn’t I explain well enough? What didn’t stick? What should I focus on next? Nobody really looks as this data except me, but it makes my lessons better.

I could find out loads more about the students in that class. I could ask SIMS for their attendance going back to Year 7 and beyond, their attainment and achievements and attitudes and intervention history and every letter sent home since they joined the school. Sometimes, where I have a concern, I will have a look and see if there is a similar pattern in other subjects, but if I’m honest this is unusual. The data I collect and record from my classroom helps me to teach better; I use it to inform the whole-school data collection which happens three times a year.

Working with data as a member of SLT

I try to keep my teacher-data in mind when I put my SLT head on. Teachers all around the school have their own systems for tracking ongoing progress on top of what I am asking them to input into SIMS, so it really needs to be worthwhile. Therefore each whole-school data collection we do has two purposes. Firstly, as a staging post to track progress and to report home to keep parents up-to-date. Secondly, to track academic attainment and progress through “working-at grades”. Thirdly, to track attitudes and behaviours for learning.

“Hard” data – academic attainment

Tessa Matthews wrote a depressing blog a couple of days ago called “What should we do about kids who aren’t making progress?”. Depressing, at least in part, because it was completely recognisable in its honesty and, in part because I am the SLT who sends out the emails and convenes the meetings to ask middle leaders the exact question posed in her title. Not, it has to be said, every third Wednesday, but I do ask the question – and I don’t apologise for it. I should be asking that question. For all that National Curriculum Levels are discredited and flawed, if a child at my school arrives in Year 7 with a Level 5 and reaches Year 9 still on a Level 5, we haven’t done enough for that child. It is one of the prime responsibilities of my job to spot those children who are at risk of not making progress and work with middle leaders and classroom teachers to find out what we can do differently, better, or additionally to ensure they do.

I try to take a “no excuses” approach with this process. By this I mean “she has a terrible home life – there’s no family support” might be an explanation as to why a Year 8 girl is not making expected progress, but it is not the end of the conversation. What can we, as a school, do to help her keep her studies on track as best she can? I echo John Tomsett’s sentiments in this regard:

I know that learning is not linear. I’m not worried if a child is a 5b in October and a 4a in January, but I will make sure that we keep an eye on that child’s progress.

“Soft” Data – attitudes, self-image and disposition

We probably do more work with the “soft” data than anything else. Three times a year all teachers report on students’ attitudes, grading them V, G, S or U for homework, classwork, effort and organisation. The judgements and the categories are all clearly defined (see our Monitoring Reports Guidelines) to try and provide consistency. Thanks to a system piloted by Ashley Loynton we track how students’ attitudes to learning are improving or declining between monitoring points and in relation to their peers, and pastoral leaders and tutors work with students individually or in small groups to address issues or trends. This has been a revelation and I always look at the attitude analysis first from any reporting session.

We also use PASS (Pupil Attitude to Self and School) surveys where students complete an online questionnaire to give feedback on their:

  • Feelings about school: “connectedness” whether pupils feel they belong to or are alienated from their school community
  • Perceived learning capability: how successful a young person feels about their learning
  • Self regard: long-term learner self worth
  • Preparedness for learning: whether learners feel they have the ‘tools to do the learning job’
  • Attitudes to teachers: pupil perceptions of their relationships with school staff
  • General work ethic: aspiration & motivation to succeed in life
  • Confidence in learning: pupils’ perseverance in the face of challenge
  • Attitude to attendance: how much a student wants to be in school
  • Response to curriculum demands: motivation to undertake and complete curriculum based tasks

Attitude data can help pick up "under the radar" issues

Attitude data can help pick up “under the radar” issues

Whilst certainly open to flaws on its own, this data is an excellent way to quantify teacher perceptions and identify students who may have barriers to learning which would otherwise remain under the radar.

External data sources – working the filter


There is a wealth of data available. Aside from the internal assessment data mentioned above, Raise Online, DfE performance tables, Fischer Family Trust, CATs and ALPS are all in regular use at my school. We also have student and parent survey data, and health data from SHEU amongst many others. Any member of staff can access them – some of them are in the public domain and available online, and the others are in the staff drive of the school network. Many wouldn’t go looking for them, however, and my job as Deputy Head is to filter out the key messages and make sure that the relevant staff get those messages without wading through irrelevance and drowning in the tide. This is a major responsibility of my role – I have to know it all. I use a combination of FFT, CATs and teacher assessments to set targets (we call them Challenge Grades – I describe the process here). I prepare a Raise Online summary for Heads of Subject and for SLT and Governors. We use ALPS in discussions with sixth form teaching teams. I make sure to congratulate and praise publicly and privately where we have success, but primarily I’m looking for the gaps and holes. I use the same test as I use in my classroom – what data is relevant? What will help improve teaching? What have we missed? What should we focus on next?


It is the job of any senior leader to make sure that the data works for the school. I can’t bear the tales I hear of children being able to tell inspectors their FFT D targets – FFT is not intended to be used that way by their own definition. This is a classic case of the data working the school, rather than the school working the data. True leadership means getting the filtering right and funnelling the right data to the right people so that, as a school, we can ask the right questions. Because – as Kev Bartle says – data only ever asks questions. I like looking for the narrative in the numbers which frames and poses those questions, but the answers are always in the classrooms and the relationships and the teaching and learning and care that makes schools a success.

Assessment without levels

I don’t share Tom Bennett’s gleeful celebration at the demise of National Curriculum levels confirmed by the Department for Education today. In fact, I feel quite nervous about this new world with the “terrifying amount of freedom” it brings. I share some of Heather Leatt’s worry:

I believe there are some good things about the National Curriculum Levels which we need to preserve in whatever models we devise to replace them. First amongst these qualities is that they were standard across the country. I accept that their application was varied and that they were open to interpretation, but the criteria for a Level 5 in English were the same in Cornwall and County Durham. When training as a teacher in 1996 I could read the National Curriculum at university and know that the level framework would be familiar to the primary school teacher where I did my Year 6 experience and the four secondary schools I went to for my teaching practices and school experiences. I knew it would be there in my first school, and the next, and the one where I was promoted. In the new world, this will not be the case. Just as the pay structures will be different, so the assessment regimes will vary from school to school and even subject to subject. I hope that, through Twitter and blogging and through the work of more astute subject organisations as well as the DfE itself, models of best practice might be disseminated and adopted by a range of institutions, but the days of a consistent national system of assessment are gone and I’m not sure that this a good thing.

Tom Sherrington wrote brilliantly about The Data Delusion back in March, describing how the original conception of National Curriculum levels was corrupted and perverted over time. They were never designed to be applied to a single piece of work – returning a student’s homework with “Level 5a” at the bottom requires a twisting and bending and filtering of the criteria which renders them next to meaningless, rather in the way that we bend Ofsted’s whole-school criteria for teaching and learning to fit single lesson observations. However, in their original form I do believe that the levels are still fit for purpose. When used to assess a portfolio of student work over time and to summarise their achievement across a range of skills and aptitudes, they work well. I happen to think that using “all”, “most” or “some” of the criteria, on a best-fit basis, can even allow for consistent application of sub-levels.

Some of my nerves are down to the statement from the DfE itself. This week teachers have been told that the whole exams system has been overhauled because we can’t be trusted to do internal assessment accurately, we’re failing bright children, and we’re to blame for the rise of the EDL. Forgive me if I think that this brave new world where suddenly Michael Gove trusts to teachers’ professionalism isn’t all that it appears. To whit, “schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests” – does this include Key Stage 3? “We will provide examples of good practice which schools may wish to follow” – a bit passive aggressive, wouldn’t you say? “We will also work with subject associations, education publishers and external test developers to signpost schools to a range of potential approaches.” Translation – we already have. My fear, I suppose, is that schools will be coerced by suggestion into a particular way of assessing through the accountability framework, and obliged to pay publishers for the privilege. At least the National Curriculum, for all its faults, was free.

What should replace levels? There has been no shortage of suggestions.

I’m fully subscribed to the view that kids need to know stuff. I’m right behind the idea that they need cultural capital and should read a whole Shakespeare play and know their times tables. But a curriculum which only tests what they know and not what they can do? That’s not for me. I’d far rather know what a student can do than what they know – not that it’s ever an either-or choice. And, crucially, the assessment has to be subject specific. The Maths curriculum is more likely to be predicated on knowledge; the PE curriculum is far more likely to assess skills. There is plenty of mileage in Joe Kirby’s mastery model, but it needs flesh on the bones to become a viable proposition.

What won’t I miss? I won’t miss tying the levels to ages. The arbitrary and purely political association that was made by the last government that children aged 11 should reach a level 4 to be average – and then the glorious mathematical finesse that saw 75, then 80% of children being “average”. Children develop at different rates. Some progress rapidly through Key Stage 2 and slow, some “click” with Maths in Year 9, some suddenly find a passion for sport aged 15.

The DfE statement says that National Curriculum levels are “complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents.” I won’t miss trying to explain to parents that a level 5 in one subject does not necessarily mean that the same child should be a level 5 in another, and why levels in languages are lower because they start at level zero in Year 7. But I hope I won’t have to substitute that with an explanation of the different systems used by History, RE, Spanish, Computing, Textiles, Art and Drama – each complex, each fit for purpose, but each unique.

Whatever curriculum we put in place must take the lid off learning, setting the highest expectations for all children, removing any barrier to their progress with effective pedagogy and committed, professional teaching. Whatever assessment system we use must capture that progress and give the children themselves, and their parents, a clear view of the path ahead so they can take the next steps. It is a sign of how complex this task is that National Curriculum levels have been wrestling with it since 1989 through APP, end of key stage testing, teacher assessments, progress maps and sublevels – and, judging by the reaction to their demise, they have failed. I hope that whatever we design to replace them can do a better job but I, for one, am daunted by the prospect.


I have not felt as strongly about an issue in education as I have felt about Michael Gove’s proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates…ever. I emailed colleagues from my present and past schools to encourage them to respond to the DfE consultation. I took to Twitter to encourage all my teacher friends and followers to respond. And I responded myself on behalf of my school.

I found the process of responding to the consultation a particularly disenchanting experience. The obtuseness of the questions they were asking felt like an episode of Yes, Minister. The assumption behind the questions was that the EBC proposal would be enacted, and that we were only being consulted about the how. As I said in response to question 28 of the consultation:

The response was easy to find and understand. The proposal was clear. However, the consultation is mainly focused on matters of technicality and implementation. I was hoping for more of an opportunity to respond to the principles and ideologies of the proposal. This consultation assumes that the proposal will be implemented as it stands. I hope, with all my heart, that it will not be. If it is, it will do irreparable damage to the self-esteem, educational experience, and life-chances of a generation of young people.

There are two drivers to my objection. The first is my own children, the eldest of whom is in Year 2. I do not want him to be subjected to the kind of education that the EBCs will encourage. The second is my own educational philosophy. I do not want to be the person that subjects other to the kind of education that EBCs will encourage. Here is my response to question 18(a):

The proposals have the potential for adverse impact on all pupils. Lower attaining pupils will become disenfranchised from an education system which will lack a meaningful outcome for them. Students who excel and achieve in practical or vocational subjects will see those subjects devalued and squeezed into marginal positions in the curriculum. Students who are capable of taking the EBCs will be forced into a curriculum which emphasises the recall of factual knowledge over the application of transferable skills, and which encourages an outdated, unimaginative and punitive pedagogy from schools. I cannot conceive of a pupil group for whom the introduction of EBCs would have a positive impact. 

In particular, I find the notion of the “Statement of Achievement” abhorrent, an in response to question 16 on that topic I responded:

I find the “Statement of Achievement” the most divisive and odious element of this whole proposal. No matter how it is dressed up or “sold”, there will be no avoiding the perception that the Statement of Achievement is, in fact, a statement of failure. Students benefit from actual achievement, not a statement declaring by its very nature what they have failed to achieve. Any qualification in the education system should be inclusive and allow for the achievement of all. No student could conceivably benefit from this proposal. 

I could go on.

In forwarding the link to the consultation documents to colleagues past and present, I was haunted by Michael Gove’s statement (reported here) to the Education Select Committee when asked what he would do in response to Ofqual’s concern about the EBCs:

He told the committee he would be willing to overrule Ofqual and press ahead if he believed the changes were right: “If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.”

He won’t listen to Ofqual, the CBI, Jude Law, Stephen Fry. He probably won’t listen to @HeadsRoundTable. So why would I bother?

Simply this. If I hadn’t bothered, I would have been complicit in allowing the sabotage of education in this country. Because the impact of the EBCs will not be on Mr Gove’s head, it will be in the desecration of the educational experience of thousands of young people. And I refuse to stand by and allow that to happen