As we expected, our decision to stop speaking and listening assessments from counting towards final marks in GCSE English and English language has disappointed many teachers.
We understand this. It was not a decision we made lightly. We considered carefully the responses to our consultation. They showed that speaking and listening are widely-valued skills. They did not, though, give us reason to alter our view that the current arrangements are unfair and need to be changed quickly.
There is no way that the exam boards can make sure these assessments are administered and marked sufficiently consistently across all schools and colleges. That means unfairness: results are not fair as between one student and another and it is not right that we allow that to continue when we can do something about it. I have seen comments from people who think this move is unfair for those students in schools where they do rigorously apply the rules and take pride in fair and accurate marking. But it is exactly these students who have faced unfairness under the previous arrangements. We saw that last year in the debates about fairness following the GCSE English awarding concerns. Their counterparts in other schools where the rules are interpreted differently, or where marking is more vulnerable to pressures from accountability measures, may have received extra credit – when grade boundaries were set – for work of the same quality.
There are also concerns that speaking and listening skills will no longer be taught. It is worth reflecting: the curriculum has not changed, and nor has the assessment. Speaking and listening are incredibly valuable skills, and they should still be taught. I hope English teachers will continue to do that. The results will still be reported on the GCSE certificate. Of course, one of the reasons schools focus so heavily on what is assessed is because of performance tables. The Government consulted earlier this year on changes to secondary accountability arrangements, in light of concerns we and others expressed about the impact of the current arrangements, and we look forward to seeing the Government’s decisions following that consultation.
I know that it is the timing of the change, as well as the change itself that teachers find particularly galling, and some students will be concerned as well. In deciding to move quickly, we weighed up the possible effect on current students as against the continuing unfairness for all students. It is an uncomfortable thing to have to consider, but faced with evidence of unfairness Ofqual thinks it right to act.
Incidentally, we are proposing to use a comparable outcomes approach to smooth out the transition. This means that where the group of students is basically the same from one year to the next, their results should look broadly the same. As we explained on our consultation, without that, A*-C results would likely drop by between 4 and 9 percentage points. That, of course, tells us something interesting about the relationship between speaking and listening results and marks in the rest (80%) of the assessment in GCSE English. If 20% of the assessment can lift results by up to 9 percentage points, it means that many teachers are judging typical performances in speaking and listening to be better than those in other aspects of the subject. And because the nature of the assessments means there is no evidence for the exam boards to review, or moderate, there is no way to be sure that this difference is always justified.
As regulator, we do sometimes have to make decisions that prove unpopular. It comes with the territory. Our aim is always to protect standards and do the right thing for qualifications and students so people can have confidence in the results. And we will always do our utmost to explain clearly the evidence and thinking behind what we do.