Accrediting new GCSEs, AS and A levels

With the end of term fast approaching, I have been reflecting on the first tranche of new GCSEs, AS and A levels. We have accredited 93 specs, covering all subjects. 124 specs have been submitted, with most submitted several times. We will no doubt accredit more before the term end, but not quite all specs from all boards.

We are keeping up with the work - it is just a question of whether specs pass muster. Exam boards have been better than in the past in getting their specs approved. That’s pleasing, given how different the new qualifications are, and as accreditation is tougher nowadays.

There are 3 accredited specs in all first tranche GCSEs and A level subjects except chemistry and psychology. The maths content in chemistry has taken some work, to be sure it is of sufficient demand, that there is enough of it, and that exam boards interpret the content in a sufficiently common way. We have one spec accredited. In psychology, the issues are different for each spec, but we do now have 2 specs accredited.

Of all, GCSE maths has been trickiest - because of the nature of maths, because specs must cater for a wider ability range than in other subjects, and as the new content is so different, and more extensive. A decent result in maths should mean that the student is sufficiently competent in the basics, and an outstanding result that she or he is outstanding. We are continuing to work on maths with that in mind.

We are carrying out research on exam boards’ methods of assessment. To be sure that maths GCSEs compare well to similar international qualifications offered internationally, over 40 maths experts are comparing the demand of questions from exam boards’ specimen assessment materials with questions from 10 high performers including Shanghai, Massachusetts, the Netherlands and Korea.

Looking at question demand is just one side of the coin. Knowing how students actually perform when they face the questions is the other. When writing questions examiners have to make assumptions about how students will interpret them, how challenging (or not) they will find them, and are often surprised by how students actually do. We are doing a further study in which students will sit exams made up of questions from the specimen assessment materials. We’ll be looking at how students actually perform; how hard they find the maths in the questions but also how their performance is affected by the presentation of the maths, for example the context in which the maths is set.

We want exam boards to create problem solving questions which illicit deep mathematical understanding. To test how the questions developed by the exam boards stimulate this understanding, we will also have students work in pairs, describing how they go about solving the problems. Experts will then judge the quality of the mathematical understanding elicited.

Through this research we will be delving into the quality of specimen assessment materials, and the impact of different approaches to assessing problem solving in particular.  Maths - we think it is worth doing as much work as possible to get the best qualification possible.

Looking beyond maths, and across all subjects, there is less non-exam assessment overall (but it is retained where it needs to be) There is more common (core) content within each subject, and more specified content as well. Assessment objectives are more distinct and better expressed, enabling exam boards to target assessment more clearly. And there are some examples of real innovation by exam boards, alongside more traditional approaches.

Together, the new qualifications are noticeably different, a real change for teachers and students. If I were choosing one from another, I would think through which best suits my teaching style and my students, knowing that each covers the curriculum well enough and that Ofqual will oversee awarding.


Glenys Stacey
Chief Regulator

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