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Testing times: early assessments.

Sign up to any nursery or reception class and your 2, 3, 4 or 5 year old will be under levels of observation formerly reserved for maximum security prisoners. Their significant doings will be noted, photographed, even filmed, and checked off against a comprehensive list of development criteria – all in the name of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The government has abandoned controversial reception baseline tests for primary schools, but the synthetic phonics approach is now firmly established, with a diagnostic reading test for 6-year-olds containing made-up words that has teachers protesting confident readers may fail the test because they try to translate the made-up words into real ones, and unconvinced the results reveal any more than their own regular assessments. Year 6s now take a discrete grammar and spelling test (replacing extended writing) whose educational value has also been questioned.

The revised primary national curriculum started in 2014. English involves more focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar, including mastery of the subjunctive and semi-colons, and much more esoteric grammar, plus the ability to spell 200 complex words such as controversy, environment, conscience and mischievous, by the end of key stage 2. It also include the use of formal spoken English, to be developed through, eg, poetry reciting.

Maths is intended to be more demanding (fractions at age 5, the 12 times table at age 9, algebra and long division at age 11), in the hope of matching the Pacific Rim PISA super stars. Facts, facts, facts in science, history (mainly British and mostly up to 1066) and geography, leavened by practical work in the first. Computing (programming, the internet and using digital devices) replaces ICT. Design and (cutting edge) technology includes using mechanical and electronic systems (there has been talk of 3D printers) and learning about good food and how to cook it – cordon and sacré bleu!

There is much disquiet amongst educationalists about the focus on memorising and regurgitating facts, with less space for developing skills and wider understanding — particularly as much of the English and maths content is seen as too demanding for the expected ages, and no attention seems to have been paid to the situation of the less able and special needs children. The most puzzling question is why academies and free schools should be allowed to choose the extent to which they enter this brave new world.

'We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar,’ wrote education secretary Nicky Morgan in the Sunday Times. 

Common entrance – all change?

Some 250 senior independents administer the test created and set by the Independent Schools Examination Boards (which derives around £70,000 from the entrances fees) consisting of three core subjects plus a range of add-ons. Many others, Eton amongst them, run their own. All schools mark their own prospective candidates’ papers and set grade boundaries. Grades or the percentage marks they represent aren’t just unequal but tend to mean, in best Humpty Dumpty style, just what schools choose them to mean. ‘Grade boundaries go up and down like the FTSE depending on how many applicants there are,’ says one head.

In the case of over-subscribed schools, merely sitting the exam at 13+ is something of an achievement as it’s increasingly preceded by qualifying rounds in years 5, 6 or 7 which eliminate no-hopers and allow senior schools first dibs on the best and brightest, often pocketing a large deposit in the process.

Its detractors argue that CE in its current form has had its day. A venerable beast, introduced in 1904, it’s fact-heavy, light on creativity, reins in the imagination and requires the last two years to be devoted to teaching to the test, say critics (though others reckon that inspired teaching can add a little sparkle to most prescriptive syllabus). Objections have been partially countered through the introduction of coursework in subjects like geography: great, say some, though others wonder just how many well-motivated and ambitious parents refrain from stamping their own personality on the project.

Others want root and branch reform. September 2013 saw the launch of an alternative, the Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB). Ten schools, the Beacon School in Amersham, Taunton Preparatory School, Yateley Manor in Hampshire, Old Buckenham Hall in Suffolk, Downe House in Berkshire, Stroud School in Hampshire, Holmwood House in Essex, Bishopsgate in Surrey, Amesbury in Surrey and Terra Nova in Cheshire are signed up either to teach the full monty or as partner schools.

Broadly based on national curriculum levels (3 to 6 for those in year 7, and 5 to 7 in year 8), the PSB has developed its own 10 point scale with lots of on-going tests and teacher assessments and is designed to develop a passion for learning rather than teaching to the test. (Parroting the capitals of the world is singled out for particular ire by CE opponents, though remaining a good party trick in later life.) Schools have the freedom to develop their own curricula and while subject-based achievement accounts for 70 per cent of the PSB marks, pupils acquire the remainder by demonstrating a range of learning skills such as teamwork, leadership and communications.

It’s up there with the latest in educational thinking, ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ you learn being an on-going preoccupation. So far, the PSB has gained the stamp of approval from 20 senior school associates, including Marlborough, Wellington, Rugby and Oundle. Acceptance of the PSB as a lock, stock and barrel replacement for the CE is the long-term goal. Some schools are keen. Others are asking pupils to sit additional maths, English and ability exams. All in all, though currently a small scale development, it’s one worth watching.

GCSEs – the exams that wouldn’t die

No longer the soft underbelly of the exams system, GCSEs are imbued with so much extra rigour you can almost smell it, with content refurbishment underway for completion in September 2016, most key subjects ready a year earlier, paint still drying on the title pages.

It’s in with a once a year June sittings for first timers and retakers alike (November resits in English and maths are the only exceptions) marking the end of the modular approach which allowed candidates to collect GCSEs in instalments, like football cards, with plenty of opportunities for grade swapsies en route if they weren’t happy with what they got first time round.

Out, too, go tiered exams, (foundation for the flounderers, higher for the top grade chasers) with a one exam fits all replacement, thanks to a levels 1 to 8 marking system that incorporates plenty of growing room – from 9 to infinity and beyond – should an explosion in academic achievement require it.

Though GCSEs are likely to remain the default choice for the majority of schools, their cousins, IGCSEs (variously described by the press – sometimes in the same newspaper – as much harder or much easier than GCSEs) were doing exceptionally well. Since receiving clearance for use in state schools (and shedding their black sheep league table status), UK entries shot up, more than doubling between 2012 and 2013 to 115,000.

However, the government decided that they would not count in official 5+ A*-C figures from 2014, thus seeing many of the top independents in the county plummeting to the bottom of the league tables.

IB or not IB?

So far, the third mainstream option, the middle years IB programme, remains small scale, currently offered, international schools aside, by just a few other,s eg the Trafalgar School at Downton in the state sector. Probably its strongest (and certainly most vocal) advocate is Wellington College, which since 2009 has let year 9 pupils choose between GCSEs and the IB (though everyone does IGCSEs or GCSEs in English lit, lang and maths). Teacher-designed courses pack in as much fun and stimulation as required (within an approved framework) and it comes with the blessing of top universities.

Wellington’s website features a ringing endorsement from Cambridge’s head of admissions, no less.

Bespoke alternatives

But they’re far from being the dernier cri in custom-designed education. Bedales, which has a reputation as something of a free spirit to maintain, runs its very own exams, the BACs (Bedales Assessed Courses). UCAS-endorsed and coursework heavy, they’re proving a hit not just with pupils, who mix and match with GCSEs, but Oxbridge, too, says the school, which reports healthy numbers of offers.

Others, too, are joining in. The Steiner-inspired Acorn School in Gloucestershire (second branch now open in London) has ditched public exams altogether, instead opting for a multi-subject curriculum and continuous assessment. Universities have bought in, it says, and pupils often receive unconditional offers. Tempted? Prospective Acorn parents must also share the head’s way of thinking on matters beyond public examinations, which doesn’t admit many shades of grey. They include robust views on everything from food — ‘We are slowly poisoning our children by filling their bodies with sugars and red meat’ – to technology (banned at home and school until pupils reach 14).

So far, and perhaps surprisingly in these branding-conscious days (St Custard’s Prix D’Excellence, Raffia work, anyone?) they remain, like the middle years IB (in the UK at least) a niche educational development.

A new standard in Scotland

It’s all change in Scotland too: Standard grades are being abandoned and replaced by new National qualifications. Some of the country’s more academic schools ditched them a while back, opting for Intermediate I or II. The state system, however, prefers National 4 or 5. The syllabus, as a result, has been substantially changed. State schools, at the time of writing, were calling for extra government funding to pay for the new materials required, a plea, some felt, that would fall on deaf ears.

EBac, Best 8 and more rigour throughout

The result, to the relief of many, seems to be the end of the grade inflation that has bedeviled GCSEs’ value as a truly objective test of attainment (for many, the UK’s slide down the world educational rankings, as monitored by the OECD but now questioned in various quarters, paints a black, but more accurate picture).

There’s no let up in monitoring schools’ attainment, however. Down south, the EBac, or English Baccalaureate (not to be confused with the EBC), awarded to candidates achieving A*/C grades in big hitter subjects — English, maths, science, a language and humanities – will stay, helping to reverse what had seemed like a terminal decline in physics, chemistry, French and German amongst others in recent years.

New, more rigorous and demanding GCSEs are scheduled, with, for example, the reading of a whole Shakespeare play, Romantic poetry and a heavyweight Victorian novel in English Literature - although drama students no longer need actually to see a live performance. They will mostly be assessed solely by terminal exams (modules ended in 2012) and graded on a scale of 1-8 instead of G-A*, presumably to mark their superior quality. Parents may not regret the passing of coursework – to which many made significant contributions – but there will be an educational loss when children no longer have a chance to produce a polished piece of extended writing.

The speaking and listening component of English no longer counts towards the final grade, which means it will play only a very minor role in the course. It is true that some teachers have not been able to resist the temptation to use it to inflate grades, but it seems short sighted when so many employers bemoan the lack of communication skills of school leavers. New accountability measures may produce some league table surprises for education aficionados; parents, though, may find them overly complex.

A radical culling of vocational qualifications followed the Wolf Review, which demanded that all such qualifications should support progress to further and higher education. Subjects involving extended writing now have marks allocated for accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. Add a focus on a ‘knowledge based’ national curriculum (news for anyone who thought that was at least one of the main reasons for going to school) and marks in writing-heavy subjects allocated to correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, and hopes are rising that GCSEs can regain the credibility of the O level and become, if not loved by candidates, something they can at least take pride in passing.

16-18: Back to the Bacc

Look at the current crop of sixth form courses and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the future’s not so much orange as laureate-shaped. AQA do one: three A levels, a semi in critical thinking and an extended project (incorporating original research), as do the Welsh (three handy sizes to fit 16 and 17 as well as 18 year olds).

Sixth form colleges have also got in on the act with their own baccalaureate, currently being piloted in 11 mainly state establishments. Offering at least a nod in the direction of inclusiveness, it recognises not just A level and BTec – ‘breadth as well as depth of study taken into account,’ says one college – and offers ‘a kite-mark of curriculum quality rather than a qualification in its own right’ – which may come as news to the students it honours.

Most recent of all, however, is the TechBacc, unveiled in 2013 and intended as the vocational equivalent of A levels, helping 16-19 year olds acquire a quiverful of employer-pleasing maths, practical and research-based skills.

The daddy of them all, however, is the IB or International Baccalaureate, whose Geneva-based founders presumably are basking in their ‘onlie begetter’ status, though possibly kicking themselves for not filing a patent on the name.

Originally designed to provide a credible, transferable education for country-hopping families – and with the laudable aim of shaping model world citizens into the bargain – the IB has gained a loyal (if still petite) following for its consistency and rigour (grade inflation is an unknown concept). Its offering, a smorgasbord of required achievements, isn’t for the fainthearted, consisting of six subjects and must-do add-ons including a lengthy essay, theory of knowledge module and 150 hours of creative, sports and community-based work.

As you’d expect, it’s no picnic for participating schools, either. While the IB parent organisation is quick to scotch rumours that costs put it at the Harrods end of the exam system – there’s even a ‘mythbusters’ secton on its website – it does admit that ‘the difficulty comes in actually offering the course, with the need to recruit more and better teachers, teacher training, extra staff, etc.’ Quite, especially that ‘etc’.

As government enthusiasm and sixth form funding appear to have waned, state schools seem to be rethinking the advisability of offering dual systems, especially as university offers consistently, if anecdotally, appear to be set higher for IB candidates. Independents, too, are finding the going tough. ‘When the IB originally came in, it was given quite a generous scaling. Now that has been scaled back, so a lot of schools are thinking that in a cost/benefit analysis, it’s better to stick with the A level,’ felt one head. Scan through the IB figures, and the impact is already being felt. Though the popularity of the IB is increasing worldwide, UK entries have dropped, though very slightly. At the time of writing, the IB communications team had not yet let us know whether they saw this as a one-off or the start of a longer-term trend.


Of course, you can avoid the B-word altogether by opting for exam specialists Cambridge International, whose Pre-U, in some eyes a nostalgic revisiting of old fashioned A levels, comes with a three-subject and research based diploma, together (gasp) with courses that challenge and exams that reward candidates who think for themselves. Its finely shaded grading system goes beyond the A*, making it easier to identify the very brightest pupils. Introduced by Cambridge International in 2008 with Winchester College and Charterhouse among the early adopters, it is now offered by over 150 UK schools – static since last year, though entries have risen – with an almost 50/50 state and independent split. Instead of a baccalaureate, there’s the diploma: three subjects (either all Pre-Us or a mix and match with A levels) plus a global perspectives ‘portfolio’.

A levels

A levels are being decoupled from AS levels, becoming two-year linear exams, though a mixture of new and old-style exams – some including ASs and some not – will continue for several years. Universities, Cambridge in particular, have complained that they use AS grades as part of their admission process; and many feel that disadvantaged pupils in particular will suffer from the abolition of ASs, as they will be less likely to try out harder subjects without the comfort of exam mid-session. With sixth form funding cuts, many state school pupils will only be able to study three A level subjects.

The future looks…deflated and a bit tougher

All this change is down to what was, until 2012, the inexorable rise and rise in top A level grades. In 2010 alone, 45,000 candidates achieved three straight As. Stripped of grade inflation recently, A levels are now shedding modules in favour of linear courses with exams at the end of the second year only, while content is also under review. One thing’s for sure. They won’t be getting any easier. 

As governments (as with GCSEs) prefer to extol the growing brilliance of pupils and teachers alike (easy) rather than opt for tougher marking (hard), would-be undergraduates have had to accomplish ever more inside and outside the classroom to stand out. For very competitive courses, applications have acquired the edge and effort of an extreme sport. Would-be doctors aren’t yet asked to develop a cure for cancer or donate a kidney to a friend as proof of dedication, but some parents wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they were, so quixotic are the requirements. ‘One asked my son for grade 8 music, presumably so he could hone his bedside skills by singing lullabies to the patients,’ snarls a disillusioned mother.

As A levels become, once again, a respected way of distinguishing between the merely bright and the outstanding, it remains to be seen whether laureates and their ilk stay the course or are discarded as fripperies and furbelows that are no longer needed on the educational voyage.


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