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Published on September 26th, 2012 | by Isabelle Mngadi
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] The introduction of the Ebacc has started the countdown on more "rigorous" exams for secondary school students © dcJohn[/caption] Assessments regulator Ofqual has suffered a barrage of criticism recently, since GCSE grade boundaries were raised mid-way through the last academic year, resulting in thousands of pupils scoring lower-than-expected results this summer. After a brief back and forth, during which Education Secretary Michael Gove proposed bringing back the two-tier O Level and CSE system, the government has now decided to scrap GCSEs altogether and introduce the English Baccalaureate  or EBacc. This system will entail one exam board, one end of course exam, fewer resits and less coursework.  Pupils beginning secondary school this year will take the first new exams - in English, maths and sciences - in 2017, and it is intended that the baccalaureate will follow in other subjects, including history, geography and languages. Behind the change lies the hope that implementing a more difficult, end-of-course exam will encourage more ‘rigorous’ teaching and focus on overall learning. In addition, by only having one exam board, it prevents competitive exam boards “dumbing down” GCSEs by lowering grade boundaries, in order to produce the best end of year reports. Gove has said the English Baccalaureate would modernise the system in England "so we can have truly rigorous exams, competitive with the best in the world, […] making opportunity more equal for every child". Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has added that the changes would "raise standards for all our children", without excluding any children. But higher standards and greater difficulty should not be put in place at the expense of young people learning in the most effective way possible. Now, as a member of society who has been through the education system, has nothing but great expectations for the young people of this country, and champions excellence and quality education, I am all for grading that will accurately acknowledge the highest achievers of our generation, and teaching which consistently pushes for the best results. That exam boards lessen the meaning of a GCSE with low grade boundaries – thus allowing students to become complacent and not push for higher grades - is a shame. But is offering just one method of academic achievement the best way to combat this?

A more level playing field

For years, coursework has been a vital learning method for pupils, allowing them to develop ideas and produce work of a kind that cannot be produced in a timed exam. Basing a critical qualification on one exam therefore puts many at a disadvantage, since some pupils naturally perform better under exam conditions. Boys, for example, fit into this category, and whilst encouraging young men to enter further education is always admirable (since most university students are female), the long-term reality of the pay gap between men and women, and the rarity of women in high-level positions, suggests that catering to diversity in learning should always be a priority for the Department of Education. Furthermore, since education is preparation for the workplace, it should be noted that the working approach which coursework encourages – one of careful planning, meticulousness, research skills and wide referencing – is increasingly beneficial, as more and more of our culture features informed discussion, debate, and intercultural understanding. In the world of work, meeting deadlines and producing work of quality is just as important being able to work under pressure. The EBacc therefore signals the end of an appreciation for different strengths, and runs the risk of making the exam system about last-minute recall rather than steady development.

Raising the bar

The best way to challenge students, whilst still allowing for different studying approaches, is simply to put up grade boundaries. The impromptu raise from Ofqual this year was indeed a tactless move, wherein the rules appear to have been changed during the home stretch, but nonetheless, when standards are set higher for future generations, it encourages excellence, whilst still catering to different students’ needs and paces of learning. One positive of the EBacc is that less emphasis on coursework will potentially lessen the class gap, as it will prevent better-off students achieving higher grades simply because of their access to better resources. But the fact remains that putting a young person’s entire hopes on one exam, rather than simply putting grade boundaries up, risks their pursuit of further education if they don’t do well in that exam. As if the rise in university tuition fees was not bad enough.

Providing opportunities

And with recent reports that youth unemployment is at an all-time high and many children are progressing to secondary school without adequate skillsin literacy and numeracy, now seems like the worst time for essential English and maths qualifications to be made more difficult to obtain. How young people perform at the end of years of secondary education has a direct effect on their confidence and their future. If there is one test that needs to be faced, it should merely be whether the Department of Education can ensure high-quality teaching before adding ‘rigour’ to a system in which many are failing already.

1

A new age of ‘rigour’ in the education system

The introduction of the Ebacc has started the countdown on more “rigorous” exams for secondary school students © dcJohn

Assessments regulator Ofqual has suffered a barrage of criticism recently, since GCSE grade boundaries were raised mid-way through the last academic year, resulting in thousands of pupils scoring lower-than-expected results this summer. After a brief back and forth, during which Education Secretary Michael Gove proposed bringing back the two-tier O Level and CSE system, the government has now decided to scrap GCSEs altogether and introduce the English Baccalaureate  or EBacc. This system will entail one exam board, one end of course exam, fewer resits and less coursework.  Pupils beginning secondary school this year will take the first new exams – in English, maths and sciences – in 2017, and it is intended that the baccalaureate will follow in other subjects, including history, geography and languages. Behind the change lies the hope that implementing a more difficult, end-of-course exam will encourage more ‘rigorous’ teaching and focus on overall learning. In addition, by only having one exam board, it prevents competitive exam boards “dumbing down” GCSEs by lowering grade boundaries, in order to produce the best end of year reports.

Gove has said the English Baccalaureate would modernise the system in England “so we can have truly rigorous exams, competitive with the best in the world, […] making opportunity more equal for every child”. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has added that the changes would “raise standards for all our children”, without excluding any children. But higher standards and greater difficulty should not be put in place at the expense of young people learning in the most effective way possible.

Now, as a member of society who has been through the education system, has nothing but great expectations for the young people of this country, and champions excellence and quality education, I am all for grading that will accurately acknowledge the highest achievers of our generation, and teaching which consistently pushes for the best results. That exam boards lessen the meaning of a GCSE with low grade boundaries – thus allowing students to become complacent and not push for higher grades – is a shame. But is offering just one method of academic achievement the best way to combat this?

A more level playing field

For years, coursework has been a vital learning method for pupils, allowing them to develop ideas and produce work of a kind that cannot be produced in a timed exam. Basing a critical qualification on one exam therefore puts many at a disadvantage, since some pupils naturally perform better under exam conditions.

Boys, for example, fit into this category, and whilst encouraging young men to enter further education is always admirable (since most university students are female), the long-term reality of the pay gap between men and women, and the rarity of women in high-level positions, suggests that catering to diversity in learning should always be a priority for the Department of Education.

Furthermore, since education is preparation for the workplace, it should be noted that the working approach which coursework encourages – one of careful planning, meticulousness, research skills and wide referencing – is increasingly beneficial, as more and more of our culture features informed discussion, debate, and intercultural understanding. In the world of work, meeting deadlines and producing work of quality is just as important being able to work under pressure. The EBacc therefore signals the end of an appreciation for different strengths, and runs the risk of making the exam system about last-minute recall rather than steady development.

Raising the bar

The best way to challenge students, whilst still allowing for different studying approaches, is simply to put up grade boundaries. The impromptu raise from Ofqual this year was indeed a tactless move, wherein the rules appear to have been changed during the home stretch, but nonetheless, when standards are set higher for future generations, it encourages excellence, whilst still catering to different students’ needs and paces of learning.

One positive of the EBacc is that less emphasis on coursework will potentially lessen the class gap, as it will prevent better-off students achieving higher grades simply because of their access to better resources. But the fact remains that putting a young person’s entire hopes on one exam, rather than simply putting grade boundaries up, risks their pursuit of further education if they don’t do well in that exam. As if the rise in university tuition fees was not bad enough.

Providing opportunities

And with recent reports that youth unemployment is at an all-time high and many children are progressing to secondary school without adequate skillsin literacy and numeracy, now seems like the worst time for essential English and maths qualifications to be made more difficult to obtain. How young people perform at the end of years of secondary education has a direct effect on their confidence and their future. If there is one test that needs to be faced, it should merely be whether the Department of Education can ensure high-quality teaching before adding ‘rigour’ to a system in which many are failing already.

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About the Author

Isabelle Mngadi

Isabelle has recently graduated from the University of Kent, with a degree in Comparative Literature. She has completed work experience with her local MP, Ann Keen, and during her time at university, a significant portion of her studies were dedicated to exploring neo-colonialism and post-colonial development in Africa and Latin America. She has a background in working with young people from the UK and all around the world, and is passionate about helping them express their voice and be a positive influence to those around them. She is mostly interested in discussing international politics, particularly the intricacies of conflict resolution, globalisation and the establishment of human rights.



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