The changing face of public examinations…

Searching for documents on my hard drive brought up something I wrote at the start of my RSC fellowship year in 2011.  We’re now at the end of 2015 and it just highlights to me the pace of change in public examinations…..

The changing face of public examinations in chemistry

“As part of my work as the Royal Society of Chemistry teacher fellow I am looking at helping academics at the University of Manchester and beyond become more familiar with the ‘daily diet’ that secondary school students in England encounter. It is easy for us to think that the students of today have (or should have) the same knowledge and skills set as we ourselves had when we began our undergraduate studies in chemistry.  It is 13 years since I took my own A-level in chemistry, on the old NEAB syllabus examined at the end of 2 years of study.  It is a time I remember with great fondness and I have a tendency to veer into nostalgia with my own A-level students about having the opportunity to get things wrong and it not mattering and the relatively carefree summer between lower and upper-sixth free from the stress of impending examination results.  This led me to think that if I were so vividly tethered to my own A-level experience then this may also be the case for the academics who may range in age from their mid -twenties to 60+.  Their own KS4 and KS5 experience of chemistry could range from the 1960s through o the early 2000s.  I began to look into what examinations at 16+ and 18+ may have looked like for those academics teaching in universities now and along the way discovered that the public examinations system in England has had a long and complicated journey to where we are today.

The status quo and pressure for changes in the near future

The current assessment system in chemistry (2011) exists as examination at GCSE, AS and A2 level (with AS and A2 scores combined to make up an A-level grade). These correspond to levels 1 and 2 (GCSE grades G-D and C-A* respectively) and 3 (A-level grades A-E) in the National Qualifications framework.  This is also the case with other subjects which support the learning of chemistry in KS4 and KS5 eg, biology, physics and mathematics.  Outside the traditional sciences there are a myriad of other qualifications and assessments with different aims and objectives BTEC, OCR nationals and entry level qualifications which have various GCSE or A-level  equivalences. Achievement in science is a measure of school quality through the use of the double science indicator (measuring the proportion of students in the KS4 cohort who achieve grade C in 2 sciences or their equivalent) and guidance exists that students achieving level 6 at the end of KS3 should have access to the triple sciences at KS4.  More recently science has been included in the controversial EBacc measurement setting out the proportion of a KS4 cohort achieving 5 grade Cs in specified subjects.  Crucially in the EBacc measurement the only qualification which is counted is GCSE in 3 single sciences or core science with additional science, specifically excluding additional applied science and other equivalents such as BTEC.  There are a number of criticisms of the current assessment regime and the current Conservative coalition government has recently been hinting at reorganising the assessment schedule so the majority of examinations are taken at the end of Year 11 and Year 13.”

Revisiting this more than 4 years later shows that there has been no let up in the pace of change. There have been no January modules available at A-level for some time and we’re now teaching a new ‘new’ A level where the AS mark is decoupled from the A2, practical work assessment at A-level no longer counts towards the overall grade. GCSEs are in the process of being reformed, soon to be graded on a 9-1 scale with 9 being awarded to relatively few, super talented students. GCSE examinations will mostly be taken at the end of Year 11 except in very exceptional circumstances. I admit that now I teach outside of the state sector I have completely lost what is happening with the National Curriculum at KS3 since it’s not compulsory for us. Measurement of schools still focuses on eBacc with various other measures in addition (progress-8 etc).

I have been teaching 10 years now and I have am beginning to lose count of the different incarnations of syllabuses I have taught. Teaching and the curriculum have been a political football too long, the whims of the latest education secretary are indulged and it is teachers who bear the brunt.  By contrast, on returning to teach at the University of Manchester I have found that much of the 1st year curriculum is the same as when I last taught it, and some of it is the same as I taught during my PhD in 2004-5.  I’m not saying that staying the same is always the right thing but I fail to see how the relentless change occurring in our schools can be anything but detrimental to the students’ education.

The pace of change in public examinations… less of a punt, more of a speedboat….

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