Bernard's pieces for the Tes

The case for keeping GCSEs is dubious at best

14 September 2019

Tougher GCSEs have been devised when there’s no need for a national qualification at that age, says Bernard Trafford

The new, “tougher” GCSE is already proving insufficiently challenging for the very brightest.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, reports that leading selective independent schools are finding that students gain far more top grades than expected: he cited one where 57 per cent of grades awarded were 9. He’s not advocating it, but reckons there may soon be calls for an additional grade 10.

It’s no surprise. The same happened previously at A level and with the old GCSE, as a result of either rising achievement or grade inflation, according to your point of view. In both cases, A* was added above A, not to mention the A-double-star (A^, “A hat”) in further maths GCSE. 

GCSE is the successor of O level, CSE and, far back in time, the School Leaving Certificate. Nowadays education (not necessarily in school) theoretically continues for all young people beyond 16. So it could be argued that exams at that age provide little useful information, except for the government to compare one school with another. 

Moreover, as currently constituted, they tell the “forgotten” third of 16-year-olds – those gaining less than a grade 4 in maths and English – that what they’ve worked for is worthless.

GCSEs: Cranking up the pressure

We’re assured that GCSE helps universities to discriminate at the top end. Indeed, it may allow selector universities to identify potential in candidates from less-favourable backgrounds as they (rightly) seek to ensure that disadvantage doesn’t prevent talented students from winning places. 

I’ve never been convinced by universities’ claims that any single qualification is essential to their selection processes. When Curriculum 2000 ushered in the AS level as the halfway point to A level, universities declared that they would be of no use whatsoever for selection. 

By contrast, when AS levels were phased out recently, universities lamented the loss of a vital indicator. 

I guess they’ve now returned to looking at GCSEs, so ambitious students will continue to aim for maximum top grades at GCSE. And when someone decides that the brightest are gaining “too many” 9s, the demand will come for a 10 (or 11, or even 12), cranking up the pressure on them a full two years before they’ll progress to university.

Selector universities do need some measure of prior attainment, but only while they perpetuate our barmy system of candidates’ applying before A level and holding conditional offers – except when some institutions drive a coach and horses through their own system by making unconditional offers

Applications to university after A levels

That problem could be solved at a stroke by a system of post-qualification application – in other words, letting candidates apply for university after they’ve got their A-level results, as students do successfully in the rest of the world. 

Policymakers and admissions tutors will throw up their hands in horror: how can they possibly get it all done between exams in June and university term starting in October? They can’t, of course, which is why they need to find the collective courage and vision to stretch that period by rethinking the entire academic year. That calls for big change, not mere tinkering.

But, until that happens – and I’m not holding my breath – the race for top GCSE grades will continue. 

The problem lies in the GCSE itself. A new, tougher exam has been devised for 16-year-olds when there’s no longer any clear reason for a national qualification at that age. It’s the wrong age and the wrong purpose for that exam, and the wrong exam for that unclear purpose.

So, before we consider revising or adding to the grades awarded at GCSE, we should revisit the whole rationale for the exam’s existence at that age. It’s dubious at best. 

Designing and introducing the new GCSE before even asking whether the qualification is still needed has been a matter of putting the cart before the horse. Let’s not now further tinker with the horse’s harness, nor buff up the brasses, when we don’t even know where it’s going.


Ofsted now does more harm than good

07 September 2019

Many social campaigners see Ofsted as the government's enforcer - but this benefits no one, says Bernard Trafford

A new school year and, as night follows day, fresh announcements from Ofsted

First came the news that schools previously rated "outstanding" will lose their exemption from further inspection

Responses were generally positive. There’s the obvious equity view: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Why should some schools, however good they were on a particular day, be treated differently from the rest? Meanwhile, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, observed that newly appointed heads find their attempts to achieve change blocked by the argument that “we’re already outstanding”.

Ofsted: Conflict and misery

Next, the inspectorate dropped all reference to homework from its new school inspection framework, on the grounds that: “It is up to schools to decide whether or not they set it for their pupils… Inspectors will assess the wide range of work provided to pupils to ensure it supports and reinforces what is taught in the classroom and the wider curriculum.”

Here responses were more varied. From the parental lobby that finds homework a source of conflict and misery at home (one led by such influential figures as Kirstie Allsopp and Romesh Ranganathan), there was joy – though I’d guess that ditching homework entirely is not what Ofsted has in mind. 

By contrast, from other, predictable, quarters emerged only fury. Chris McGovern, chair of the Campaign for Real Education (CARE) and a former Ofsted inspector to boot, told The Sunday Times: “This is a retrograde step… Many teachers will take the easy way out and not set homework from now on… This has been done to appease teachers who are complaining about their workload…”

Policy enforcers

To picture my perfect Ofsted inspector would be a bit like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen imagining five impossible things before breakfast. But I can’t imagine Mr McGovern having much in common with my ideal.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for his intemperate tirade, which, while betraying a deep distrust of teachers, also illustrates clearly what too many people – including most of the media, policymakers and thinktankers – regard as the inspectorate’s purpose: to ensure that schools do what the government (along with the media, policymakers and thinktanks) wants them to do. Because, if left to themselves, they cannot be trusted to. In other words, to enforce policy.

CARE believes it. Well-intentioned social campaigners believe it. Every call for schools to address the latest pressing social issue – knife crimeobesity, fitness, sleep, healthy eating, screen time, internet safety, tolerance, intolerance, diversity, extremism – brings a concomitant demand that Ofsted check that schools are doing it. Otherwise, it’s argued, they won’t. Trust has long been in short supply.

To be fair to Ofsted’s boss, Amanda Spielman, she and her senior staff are as powerless against those demands as the schools they inspect, though they suffer less than those on the receiving end. Whenever an element is added to the inspection framework, schools feeling themselves under the cosh (a lot of them) write policies to address it, despite Ms Spielman’s pleas not to. And, if an element is removed or downgraded…well, witness those reactions to that decision not to mention homework. 

Catastrophic damage

So what of this week’s suggestion that Ofsted inspect schools’ financial management? Perhaps Ms Spielman’s next annual report could tell the government how schools are doing the impossible with inadequate budgets? 

But she can only do so when the damage is so catastrophic as to be clearly demonstrable. Last year, she was (genuinely) unable to demonstrate scientifically to the Commons Education Select Committee that swingeing cuts were affecting levels of achievement, though she said it was likely. Effects become measurable only slowly, so in the meantime government can ignore them. And did, in this case.

As for the latest proposal that Ofsted should report on schools’ transmission of “cultural capital”, I guess we’ll rapidly see a nation’s entire artistic, literary, spiritual and social heritage reduced to policies two sides of A4 in length.

Ofsted holds schools accountable. Schools, in their turn, are able to hold neither inspectorate nor government to account for failing to support them adequately. Simultaneously a blunt instrument and a double-edged sword, Ofsted now does more harm than good. 

We must find a better way of assuring schools’ accountability – and inspection needs to go.