New content and structure changes to GCSE exams in 2017

Despite parents and teachers showing reservations over changes, Ofqual insists GCSEs and A-levels 'continue to be trusted'

The Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual announced changes in 2013 to the content and structure of GCSEs taken by students in schools across England. The new GCSEs have been taught in schools since September 2015, and the first new set of exams are set to take place in the summer of 2017.

According to editor of the education newspaper Schools Week, Laura McInerney, though, “the signs of catastrophe are already there” and the “radical transformation” has not been sitting well with both parents and teachers alike.

So, what are the new changes which will affect the exams system? According to leading UK awarding body OCR, one of the key structural features of the new GCSEs confirmed by Ofqual - England’s qualifications and exams regulator - includes a new ‘grading scale’ - which will replace the traditional A* to G grading system - to, instead, use numbers 1 to 9 to identify levels of performance, with 9 being at the top end of the scale. Where performance is below the minimum required to pass a GCSE, students will receive a ‘U’.

Writing in The Guardian, though, McInerney said the Government designed this system “deliberately” to prevent things from adding-up, and said: “This will make it difficult for employers and universities to compare candidates in the next few years.” As well as this, a recent report from leading think-tank CentreForum has warned the proportion of students who will achieve a ‘good pass’ in their GCSEs could fall by around 23 per cent under the new numerical system, reported Schools Week. First problem highlighted.

The second change is regarding the fact that, according to former education secretary Michael Gove - who set out the proposals in 2013 - GCSEs in 2017 will be getting a lot harder overall to “equip [young people] to win in the global race.” This, according to the DfE, will include “more challenging course content” and will see all subjects - including English literature, maths, and history - toughen-up.

This, wrote McInerney, will be advantageous for ministers who can “excuse any dip in results on the grounds that the questions got harder rather than schools got worse,” something, she added which will only be unhelpful to employers trying to figure out who the best candidate for the job is, and the heads of schools who will feel “under pressure” to display improvements. Second problem highlighted.

However, one of the more “positive” changes, said McInerney, is that schools will not be ranked according to the number of students getting five or more A* to C GCSE grades. Instead, secondary schools will use a ‘progress’ score entitled Progress 8.

According to the DfE, Progress 8 aims to capture the progress a pupil makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school, adding: “It is a type of value added measure, which means pupils’ results are compared to the actual achievements of other pupils with the same prior attainment.” Yet even this, said McInerney, may be difficult to digest as working out some difficult-to-establish figures will make the process “fiendishly complicated.”

Despite many respondents to an annual survey of perceptions of A-levels and GCSEs in England showing reservations over the changes Ofqual, however, seems keen on reflecting on the positive side of things.

Speaking of the survey’s results at the time of their release, chief regulator at Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, said: “These data show the perceptions of those closest to the education system. There are many positives in this release, most importantly that GCSEs and A-levels continue to be trusted by the vast majority of those who rely on these qualifications.

“There are also areas where we can, and are already doing more, including enhancing our communications with everyone who has an interest in education. For example, we are launching the first in a series of digital ‘postcards’ to explain more about our work, focussing initially on the new 9 to 1 GCSE grading system.”

On the whole, it seems parents and academics have no choice but to follow the DfE’s new changes, and a DfE spokesman reassured: “We want all pupils to benefit from the reformed qualifications we are introducing. Improving the exams and curriculum is a key part of our long-term economic plan.”