Every summer brings with it nerves and anticipation for those students sitting exams. This year however those nerves were heightened as A-levels and GCSEs were overhauled and students – and teachers – were facing the unknown, Christine Toner reports.
Five years ago, then education secretary Michael Gove announced plans to overhaul the way achievement is monitored in education – specifically at GCSE and A-level. His plans included reducing the amount of coursework, with assessment conducted by exam only, removing the module aspect of A-levels and decoupling them from AS-level (meaning AS results no longer count towards an A-level) and reviewing the content of the subjects. The changes would be rolled out over three years with the sciences, history and English among the first subjects to be affected.
The grading structure for GCSEs would also change over a three year period, with maths and English the first subjects to be affected. Grading would change from A* to G to numbers 1-9 with grade 9 the highest grade and grade 7 the equivalent of grade A. The exams would become more challenging with Mr Gove calling for “high-quality, rigorous, demanding qualifications”.
And this year the impact of those plans was finally felt as the first students of the new system sat their exams.
The overhaul was the biggest the sector had seen in decades and as such the standard nerves and trepidation felt by students and teachers when August rolled around were compounded by a sense of the unknown.
When students collected their results last month however, any fears that the changes might result in a fall in achievement were put to bed. Provisional figures showed A-level results in Liverpool had actually shown an improvement.
Grades from the schools that have reported their results to the council so far show that 92% have seen an improvement in their average grade score.
Early reports also suggest that GCSE results in the region have improved again – with Liverpool above the national average in English and maths.
Information supplied by secondary schools in the city shows that, for English and maths combined, the percentage of pupils getting a grade 4 or higher – broadly similar to a C or above under the old scoring system – has gone up from 56.6% last year to 60.4%.
In English, 72.7% of students achieved a grade 4 or higher, above the national average of 71.9%. And in maths 66.1% received a grade 4 or above, compared to 59.9% for the rest of the country.
Councillor Nick Small, assistant Mayor and Cabinet member for Education said the figures were ‘promising’.
“The changes made to the exams this year have been the biggest since O levels were scrapped almost 30 years ago, and it is always difficult for those students who are the first to take new style tests,” added Councillor Small. “The figures that we have got so far are really promising, and although it is difficult to make comparisons, it appears that we have seen improvements in those areas we know the grades are broadly similar.
“We have spent a lot of time working with schools on different initiatives such as the Liverpool Promise, City of Readers and Liverpool Counts to drive up standards and the quality of teaching in subjects, and I am pleased that this is being reflected in exam grades.”
In Sefton there was also an improvement in GCSE results. Councillor John Joseph Kelly, Sefton Council’s Cabinet member for Children, Schools and Safeguarding, said: “While all of the data has not yet been released, provisional figures are very positive with 62.5% of students achieving grades 4 – 9 in English and maths compared to the equivalent last year (grades A*-C) of 60%.” And in Knowsley 46.6% of students achieved Grade 4 or above in both English and maths, compared to 39.6% achieving the equivalent (Grade C or above in both English and maths) last year.
But while the results look to be quite positive on both a local and a national scale (according to reports sixth formers have achieved some of the best A-level results in years) the changes to the system have been criticised by teaching groups. “The reformed GCSEs taken by this cohort in English and maths, and which will be taken in almost all subjects by next year’s students, are the legacy of Michael Gove,” says Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. “Their syllabuses are less engaging and less accessible, and involve a large reduction in coursework and other non-exam assessment methods. This reduces the opportunities for students to show what they can do and increases the high-stakes nature of the exams. Putting more emphasis on final exams is hitting hardest those who require the most support, such as disadvantaged students and students with special education needs. A narrower and less accessible curriculum reduces both student motivation and engagement with learning.”
Kevin says in terms of accountability, the new 9-1 GCSEs bring with them damaging side-effects for schools, colleges and teachers.
“Despite the approach of ‘comparable outcomes’, which may make the national picture look broadly similar, schools and colleges will still experience volatility in their results. In a climate where test results are used as a hard and fast measure of school performance and to make judgements on teachers’ performance and their pay, this volatility can have unfair consequences. The indicators used to measure schools in England are not fit for purpose. They do not measure what they are set out to, they cause unnecessary stress and anxiety and they are driving educational practice that does not put the needs of the student first.”
After a tumultuous few years for the education sector, Kevin believes the stress “emanating from unfair and inaccurate accountability measures and the less-engaging, restricted curriculum” add to a storm gathering over the educational landscape.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, shares Courtney’s concerns.
“Whilst school leaders are celebrating their students’ achievements, they will also be concerned about the way their schools will be judged after this latest set of results,” he says. “The reality is that many schools are now trapped between a rock and a hard place when deciding upon which subjects to offer students in the future.
“On the one hand, schools will be determined to offer a wide range of subjects so pupils can choose GCSEs that best fit their abilities and aspirations. But on the other, they’ve got the government’s performance measures that are scrutinised by Ofsted, regional schools commissioners and others”.
Paul says in order to get to the best possible scores in performance tables, schools would have to get as many of their students as possible through both English language and literature GCSEs as well as the other EBacc subjects that the government favours.
“The problem is that what looks good for schools on paper, and what’s right for students in reality are now potentially conflicting with each other, and that can’t be healthy.”
Those teachers operating on the front line are all too aware of the challenges the sector faces.
Ian Young, principal at Rainford High says adapting to the changes had been difficult.
“It has been a challenge for students as teachers have been unsure about what the final exam expectations were going to be so developing the students to know what to do to get the best grades has been challenging as sometimes teachers have not been able to give students definitive answers to questions,” he says.
Ian says the multiple linear exams and the resilience students need to complete them in a single exam season is “a challenge of stamina and focus for the young people”.
“Our results were OK but there were some unexpected outcomes for some of the students,” he adds.
The school is now looking ahead to 2018 and Ian says teachers will take on board the lessons learnt this year – including “preparing for the mental challenge of taking so many exams in a short period of time so students performance does not reduce as they become fatigued”.
The current crop of A-level students will be experiencing the new style of assessment for a number of other subjects including music and modern foreign languages while all A-levels will fall under the new system by 2019.
New GCSEs are currently being taught in science, languages, music, geography and history (with a third phase of subjects rolled out a year later).
But the class of 2017 will always be known as the proverbial guinea pigs for an education overhaul that shook the sector to its core.
While the government’s overhaul of the education system may be causing clashes of opinion, what isn’t up for debate is the fantastic achievements of students across the region – as their proud headteachers say.
Principal Ian Young: “We are incredibly proud of the young people who have done so well this year in gaining strong outcomes for their future opportunities and ambitions.
“As we continue to move towards delivering excellence for all our students, these set of results demonstrate the hard work of all Rainford students and staff.”
St Mary’s College
Principal Mike Kennedy: “I am delighted with these results which reflect all the hard work of our pupils, and the support they have received from staff and their families, throughout their time at the school.
“The high percentage of passes at the highest grades is particularly pleasing, and shows that our students have the academic strength in depth to do well in future at A-level, at university and in their chosen careers. All our students and their parents should be very proud of what they have achieved in these important GCSE examinations, and rightly I am sure they will be celebrating their many successes over the next few days.”
St Francis Xavier’s College
Headteacher Gez Flowers: “The GCSE results today are testament to the hard work of our Year 11 students, and the dedication of both our wonderful teachers and parents in supporting the boys and ensuring that they reach their full potential.”
Executive headteacher Les Rippon: “What a fantastic results week it has been for St Francis Xavier’s College! We would like to wish those students leaving us for pastures new the very best of luck and for those who will be progressing into sixth form at SFX College, here’s to the next two years and to your continuing success!”
St John Bosco
Headteacher Darren Gidman: “I am very proud of all our students, who have worked tirelessly alongside staff, and with the support of parents and carers. While some grades look a little different today, with the introduction of the new 9-1 grading system, what’s not changed is our students’ great achievements which will propel them to exciting careers and further education.”