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Chris McGovern: If this is world class exam rigour then I am a Dutchman


Pupils in England are about to sit the new generation of GCSE exams, beginning with English and maths this summer. The DfE wants us to believe that the new exams are ‘world class’ and that they will bridge the current gulf between us and the best education systems around the world:

Grade 5 will be positioned in the top third of the marks for a current Grade C and bottom third of the marks for a current Grade B. This will mean it will be of greater demand than the present grade C, and broadly in line with what the best available evidence tells us is the average PISA performance in countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland.”

No mention here, though, of benchmarking our exams against the Asia-Pacific superstar states for educational attainment. True, Finland is mentioned but it no longer makes the top 10 for maths on the OECD PISA tests.

Equally significant is the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that a ‘good’ pass for the new GCSE will now be downgraded from grade 5 to grade 4 on a 1-to-9 scale with 9 at the top. The dumbing down has started before the first exams are even sat. And we should remember that the Government can have any pass rate it likes because everything depends on where the grade boundaries are set. According to media reports the exam boards have, in the past, awarded C grades in maths – a ‘good’ pass – for just 16 per cent of the marks and A grades for less than 50 per cent.

Still, if the exam papers are more rigorous, that will be a move in the right direction. What can we expect? The specimen papers are intended to tell us all we need know. I have been taking a look at a specimen paper for English Language (AQA board) to ascertain how much tougher the new exams are likely to be.

The first half the paper requires candidates to read the opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.

“It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink.”

They are then asked to: List four things from this part of the text about the weather in Cornwall. [4 marks]”

The mark scheme (below) sets out how the for marks available should be awarded:

“Indicative content; students may include:

  • it was a cold day
  • the weather had changed overnight
  • there was a wind
  • there was mist on the hills
  • the air was clammy
  • the air was cold
  • it was raining

Or any other valid responses that you are able to verify by checking the Source.”

In other words, the new ‘world class’ GCSE In English presents candidates with the text, “It was a cold grey day” and asks them, “What was the weather like?”

The follow-up question relates to a continuation of the text and provides ‘crib sheet’ style assistance to candidates. It is an extended and only slightly more demanding version of question 1:

“How does the writer use language here to describe the effects of the weather? You could include the writer’s choice of:

  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms.  [8 marks]”
  •  Question 3, the last one on this half of the paper, also provides ‘crib sheet’ style assistance to candidates. Candidates are referred back to the text given for the first two questions:

“You now need to think about the whole of the Source.
This text is from the opening of a novel.
How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader? You could write about:

  • what the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
  • how and why the writer changes this focus as the Source develops
  • any other structural features that interest you.  [20 marks]”

The second half of the exam ask candidates to do some ‘free writing’ – to be judged by their peers and so, presumably, a fair amount of latitude with the English language is not only acceptable, but required:

“You are going to enter a creative writing competition.

Your entry will be judged by a panel of people of your own age. Either: Write a description suggested by this picture:

Or: Write the opening part of a story about a place that is severely affected by the weather.

(24 marks for content and organisation 16 marks for technical accuracy) [40 marks]”

Based on this specimen paper and a lowered pass grade, can we be confident that the new GCSE is going to be ‘world class’ in its rigour?

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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