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Durham University News


Durham University expert comments on GCSE exam changes

(18 September 2012)

Professor Robert Coe

A Durham University expert has called for more discussion on examination systems before the government introduces changes to GCSEs for 16-year-olds.

The comments follow the move by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, to replace GCSE exams with a single examination which pupils will sit at the end of the school year, rather than working on continually-assessed coursework based on the current modular structure.

The proposed changes represent the biggest shake-up of secondary school qualifications for nearly 25 years.

Professor Robert Coe, Director, The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, said: “Coursework and modular exams have been getting a bad name recently but there are good educational reasons for including both in assessments. The problems come when you combine them with a high-pressure accountability system that includes league tables, closing down schools that don’t meet ‘floor targets’, and the general perception, reinforced by Ofsted, that exam results measure educational quality. The truth is that no kind of assessment can really withstand this kind of pressure.

“Accountability is here to stay, and rightly so, but we need to have some discussion about how we create accountability systems that are not completely dysfunctional for learning.

“It is not obvious how the new qualification will be different from GCSEs. Of course you can give it a new name and say it will be rigorous and be like the O-levels were, but what does this mean?

“People like the idea of the O-level exam because it represents an elite, high standard. But like grammar schools and Oxbridge, that excellence is really achieved by selection: if these institutions were opened up to everyone, it is hard to imagine they would remain so special. If everyone could take an O-level, how would it be different from a GCSE?

“There are certainly problems with the current GCSE, and it is right to make it more challenging for the highest attainers. Exam questions have relied too much on recall of facts, requiring regurgitation of formulaic and predictable responses rather than understanding or hard thinking. If the new exams better reward the kinds of learning we actually value then the change will be very welcome.” 

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