As Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, I care deeply about assessment, of course, but it is only one part of the system; qualifications should be designed to deliver the curriculum aims first of all, and of course they in turn rely on great teaching to bring them to life, and make the biggest difference, student by student.
I reflected on this from a regulatory perspective when speaking with headteachers at the Surrey Heads conference last week. The relationship between curriculum aims, assessment and accountability is inevitably a tense one, and that has made for some difficult and sometimes contentious decisions on our part. So for example I spoke with Surrey heads about the conclusions we recently announced with respect to the four exam boards reformed GCSE maths specifications. You can find a summary of our research and findings here, or a video explanation by my colleague Ian Stockford here. The new maths curriculum is different from that which exists today, with broader and more demanding content. At the same time, exam boards must deliver assessments that continue to cater for a wide range of student ability. In short, all the exam boards’ papers had strengths and weaknesses and we are now scrutinising new sample assessment materials that they have submitted to us. We continue to expect that new materials will be in schools from the end of June.
I also discussed some of our decisions with respect to English literature, where concerns have been expressed that only by learning 15 poems off by heart can students possibly hope to achieve the highest grades. That is simply wrong.
I wrote about this subject back in March, but I have recently come across an excellent summary of the true situation written by Barbara Bleiman, co-director of the English and Media Centre, an independent educational charity. Ms Bleiman makes two points. First, that ‘all of the specifications name a poem and print that poem on the exam paper – so that allows students to respond closely and discuss language, with the poem in front of them – no memorisation needed there.’ Second, that ‘all of the specifications require a response to a second poem. In some cases, this is unseen, and in others, the choice of a second poem is from the set anthology…The unseen poem is…on the paper. The choice of a second poem allows students to select a poem that they feel confident to write about. Clearly it needs to be a relevant and well-chosen comparison poem but they can choose their own ground and then choose which aspects they want to focus on, in relation to the question.’ You can read Ms Bleiman’s full blog and her conclusions here.
The final topic I touched on with heads last week was the assessment of practical science at GCSE and A level, where we have now published a further technical consultation. We have three aims as part of the reforms we are making to science assessments. First, we want to increase the amount of practical work students experience. We want to allow and enable teachers to deliver the curriculum aims for the sciences. Second, we want to improve the quality of the practical work students are doing and to provide science teachers with the chance to truly integrate practical science into the curriculum, into teaching and learning. And third, we want assessments to be fair, and it is hard at present to say that the outcomes from non-exam assessments are always fair or always reflect properly what they should - students’ understanding and abilities in practical science work.
No doubt there will be other contentious decisions to be made as we balance curriculum aims with the need for reliable results and taking into account accountability requirements. Sometimes these things pull in different directions and are hard to reconcile. In that situation, the curriculum aims should always come first, in our view.