The government’s decision that only the first attempt at a GCSE will henceforth count towards a school’s place in the league tables is sensible. It is a response to widespread gaming of school GCSE outcomes. This has seen some schools entering young people for multiple exams in successive years, and, at the extreme, basing their curricula on the demands of assessment and accountability and not the school’s (legal and moral) duty to provide a broad, balanced education.
Of course, government has not banned re-takes – although earlier announcements suggested that Ministers would like to tighten up on them. It has simply decided that only the first attempt at an examination will count towards a school’s performance data. For students, re-takes are sensible. I try something; I fail. I learn from my failure and I improve. This is exactly the sort of lesson we want young people to learn for work and for life. But secondary students have been entered early for examinations for entirely different reasons. In too many schools, the Key Stage 4 curriculum –extended in some to three years on often spurious grounds – has become a vehicle for delivering assessment arrangements rather than for the needs of students. In some schools the key stage 4 curricula are simply unfit for purpose.
But the Government’s decision raises questions that go much wider, and raise questions about the relationship between assessment, curriculum, and accountability. We look to a few, simple tools to do too much: assessment dominates our accountability framework. It’s only a couple of weeks since the Government declared that all 16- and 17-year-olds would need to study English and Mathematics until they secured a GCSE grade C or equivalent. Now the message is that only the first attempt at such a qualification will count for accountability purposes. It’s sensible for 16- and 17-year-olds to continue to study English and mathematics. It’s sensible for a system to be structured to ensure that as many as possible achieve good grades at 16 or later. But to confuse this by telling young people that their redoubled efforts won’t help their school makes less sense.
Some argue that there is a different way of looking at this: that young people should take assessments when they are ready. Some very able teenagers are ready for GCSE Mathematics at very high levels at 14, although in most cases they would get a deeper and richer understanding of the subject if they did the exam later. Others don’t reach such examination readiness until they are 18 – or later. So it might be much better if the examination system allowed for assessment when ready, much as graded assessments in Music do. But if this is true, it makes little sense to publish accountability tables based on examination results at the arbitrary age of 16. We’d be interested in a driving school – call it Cautious Cars – which boasted that 98% of its learners passed their driving test first time. But we’d be concerned if we learnt that Cautious Cars did not allow any learner to take the test until they’d completed 100 lessons. We might think another – Dashing Drivers, perhaps – effective if it boasted that learners took their test after just six lessons, but we’d be disappointed to learn that only 10% passed. Cautious Cars is an expensive banker, where Dashing Drivers is cheap but risky. Assessment and accountability are at odds.
Accountability matters, but we need to be much clearer about what we are holding schools accountable for: reaching a level – the proportion of young people meeting GCSE C or above – or progression (progress made between entry to a school and leaving it). The two pull in different directions in relation for schools’ decision-making. Factor in curriculum and the challenges multiply: there are tensions between a broad, balanced curriculum – as was mandated in Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act – and the much looser curriculum free-for-all which has developed since the Labour government removed the requirement to study languages after age 14.
These are complex questions. At root, I suspect, most of us think government is right to clamp down, however clumsily, on a practice which has produced some of the most egregious gaming behaviours in secondary schools - though such a decision should have been subject to consultation to consider the implications. But resolving the real tensions around assessment and accountability depend on a deeper discussion about what we want from upper secondary education and how we can use the different tools of assessment, curriculum and external audit to get what we want.