Controversy over plummeting grades will continue for years to come, claims exams chief

Increased academic content and essay-writing aims to make school-leavers more employable, but 'raising the bar' may rob students of top university places

EDUCATION EDITOR

GCSE and A-level exams will become even tougher and more academic over the next few years, according to the head of one of the big three exam boards.

Rod Bristow, the president of Pearson, the exam board that offers Edexcel and BTEC qualifications, says: "The bulk of the reforms to make the content of exams tougher won't flow through into results for at least another two years."

His comments come as controversy has already broken out over the changes to this year's exams – which saw top-grade passes in the GCSE English exam plummet.

It prompted the head teachers' leader, Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders, to declare that many of this year's students were "victims" who could have been robbed of a top university place by getting lower grades for the same quality of work which would have earned an A* grade in 2013.

In an internal communication to Pearson staff, Mr Bristow argues that "raising the bar, to stretch and engage learners is the right goal (who will argue with ambition?) and for that reason many of the changes we are now implementing are a very good thing".

The changes, which include a complete overhaul of the exam syllabus in most subject areas, are designed to make questions more challenging and encourage students to show more of their creative thinking skills in essay-style questions.

Girls from Newcastle High School in Jesmond, Newcastle, celebrate their A-level results Girls from Newcastle High School in Jesmond, Newcastle, celebrate their A-level results As revealed by The Independent on Sunday earlier this month, the maths content, in particular, will be harder, including much of the content previously covered by a separate and harder additional maths exam. Experts say schools should devote an extra hour a week to cover it, and many schools are planning to spread GCSE studies over three years – starting pupils on courses at 13 – to cover all the content.

Mr Bristow, though, argues that the hardest part is not making the exams tougher but enabling more pupils to succeed in mastering them, rather than simply accept a pass rate decline. He says: "We will know if it has worked when more young people are able to realise their ambitions, when universities tell us new recruits are better prepared than they have ever been – when employers tell us job applicants have the literacy, numeracy and other transferable skills they need.

"While raising standards and making exams tougher is consistent with these goals, it is far from enough. Indeed there are real risks. Higher standards and a greater academic focus won't alone engage all learners. And academic skills, while important (and relatively easy to examine versus practical skills) are not the whole story...

"The global economy does not only value what people know. It values what they can do. That implies a more rounded education that goes beyond what is tested at exams."

"More confident teaching to deliver higher academic standards is important but we also need to give the same treatment to vocational and applied learning pathways."

Nearly one in four successful applicants to university go through the BTEC vocational route – with every prospect that these numbers will grow, he argues. "The A-level is becoming more academically focused at the same time as universities are placing higher value on vocational degrees as they focus their efforts on employability," he adds. As a result, BTEC is also undergoing reform in consultation with employers.

Mr Bristow also raises a question mark over the decision by the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to "decouple" the AS-level exam – taken by most students at the end of the first year of the sixth-form – from A-levels. Until now, AS-level marks have counted towards A-levels and universities are worried that students will no longer opt to do them if they are a separate exam. As a result, admissions tutors will have no inkling of the standard of a candidate's sixth-form work before they have to decide whether to make them a provisional offer.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Government's chaotic and piecemeal changes to GCSEs have created instability and confusion for teachers and students. This has so far been a process which shows little regard for professional consensus or evidence.

"Rod Bristow's view that vocational education should be on an equal footing accords with NUT policy, as does his support of AS-level."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Unqualified NVQ Assessors - Health, Social Care & Management

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders