Hello all and Happy New Year. I wish you all the best for 2014.
Like many of you, we are facing another busy and challenging year. Qualifications reform will continue to be a major priority, of course. We will begin consultation and discussion soon on how we are to set performance standards for new GCSEs, and we will consult as well on the principles we suggest for determining what subjects should carry the GCSE brand in future. Here I know that people are concerned about PE and Drama, but they need not be. Our interest is in making sure that we know where to draw the line in future, and large volume, established subjects like PE and Drama are not at risk.
We will be reviewing responses to our consultation on A level science assessments when it closes in two weeks time. Looking at how A level practical assessments work at the moment, we think there are some intractable issues: Some teachers focus just on the limited range of skills typically required for the assessments. There is a worrying and increasing number of reported incidents of malpractice, and no doubt more incidents unreported. Apart from anything else, not every school can take the assessments at the same time, and so exam boards allow a window of time for them to take place. Keeping the nature of the task confidential to the end of this period is practically impossible.
What’s more, current practical assessments do not differentiate well between candidates or identify different levels of performance across the full grade range. Results tend to bunch around the top end of the scale. And students’ performance in the practical assessments greatly exceeds their performance in the exams.
So, we’re making radical proposals for change. We are proposing that the A level grade itself is based on the candidate’s performance in written examinations. The exam papers would include questions on experimentation, experimental techniques, data collection and analysis, evaluation of planning and implementing practical activities, including consideration of errors and anomalies and so on. We are also proposing that there should be a separate practical assessment and result reported for practical (bench) skills. The separate reporting of practical skills will mean that there will be greater clarity than now, on a student’s performance in this vital area.
Some have taken our proposals to mean we don’t value practical work in science. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We are not saying practical skills are unimportant, we are saying they are so important that the assessment arrangements should not adversely influence (limit) what students experience and learn.
We say that our proposals, if implemented well, could do much more to embed A level bench science in schools than the current arrangements. To implement the arrangements well requires good regulation. For example, to ensure the quality of the written examination assessment and the proper range of practical skills for the non-exam assessment. But we’re interested in what your views are, and are particularly interested in any alternative proposals you may have to resolve the issues with the current assessments.
Sticking with the reform of qualifications, we will be agreeing with exam boards and Government arrangements for reviewing GCSE content in those subjects that are not core curriculum subjects, and agreeing the subjects for phase two of both A level and GCSE reform.
Perhaps our biggest reform challenge for 2014 is in relation to other qualifications, both those funded by Government and others. We are considering and discussing with Government how best to drive improvement to quality here, gearing up to deliver reforms to the way we regulate which will have a significant effect on awarding organisations and on the quality of their qualifications. We will report shortly (on an interim basis) on our fundamental review of the Qualifications and Credit Framework, setting the ball rolling.
It is difficult to envisage summer this early in the year, and with the weather as it is, but it will be fast upon us, and for us that means overseeing the summer examinations series. We know that many in schools and colleges do not trust ‘the system’ and see our maintenance of standards as some sort of statistical trick. We intend to work hard to improve understanding and trust in standards, ahead of the first awards of new GCSEs in 2017, starting this year. I do not know for certain whether trust and understanding can be improved materially, but we will try. We shall be ever more transparent about what we do and why and make every effort to increase confidence.
Nowadays, every summer series brings its own challenges, and this year is no different. In 2014 we will be watching A levels and GCSE English and Maths in particular, because of recent changes. We will be explaining any differences in results patterns, as we did in 2013, and with the benefit of experience, we know to plan for the unexpected as well as the expected.
Shortly we will publish our final report on the quality of marking. This is an important step, our first effort at an in-depth evaluation of one important aspect of how the wider system works. We will set out proposals to improve our monitoring of exam boards’ marking and offer some thoughts on the appeals system. While we get on with delivering on our commitments from this work, we will also be working on our second in-depth evaluation of the system: at the moment we have a number of options at play. If you have suggestions to make then do let me know. Personally I am interested in inter-subject comparability – a complex issue worthy of full consideration, but you may consider there are more pressing issues for in-depth review.
In recent months we have been taking enforcement action against some awarding bodies and I expect to see our firm handedness continue in 2014. Colleagues in our Regulatory Operations Directorate are facing a particularly eventful year: new general qualifications are to be submitted for accreditation at fixed points in the early summer, and we are already in the middle of a sizable recruitment campaign for a new cadre of subject experts in support, with over 500 applicants. Of equal significance, we will be developing the way we regulate so as to focus on awarding organisations’ abilities and actual track records in producing valid qualifications.
I have touched on a few of our significant commitments for 2014, but I am conscious that there is much more done day to day, and to be done. It is stimulating and important work and I feel privileged to be part of it. Let us see what the year brings.