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The exams merry-go-round

Walk into any bookshop and it's hard to believe Letts didn't introduce exams! A quick glance at the array of revision guides demonstrates the importance and emphasis now placed on assessing little Annie or Ahmed. For some parents, exams prove an occasion to swell with pride, as their child soars over the hurdles. Others seem to limp along, attempting to find a different way to cross the hurdle, dodge it, or not even getting an invitation to attempt it. However, we are told testing is designed to help spot problems and to allow children to be given appropriate help and support, so don't be despondent if your child doesn't fly first time, but do work with teachers and other professionals to help sort problems and difficulties.

The National Curriculum for England and P levels


The National Curriculum for England and Wales is the framework used by all state schools in both countries. Children work at different levels according to age and ability. There are 4 key stages, with national testing at the end of each (the fourth being GCSE at which point the national curriculum no longer applies). By the end of key stage 1 (age 7), the average child is expected to achieve national curriculum level 2; this rises to level 4 at the end of key stage 2 and level 5 or 6 by the end of key stage 3. Only the most able pupils will achieve a level 8 with an additional exceptional performance category for those who achieve beyond this. Such performance is rare. In exceptional cases, schools can choose to disapply weaker students from some elements of the national curriculum.

Some children with special needs will be working below level one of the national curriculum. They are assessed according to P scales. Pupils aged 5-16 who are working at, or towards P levels are likely to need significant help and prompting with tasks and activities. P scales exist for all national curriculum subjects (including PSHE and RE). There are 8 levels of performance, with each describing some of the important knowledge, skills, and understanding that pupils may gain from the programmes of study of the national curriculum.

Levels P1 to P3 show the earliest levels of general attainment with subject-focused examples. Levels P4 to P8 show subject-related attainment, designed with transition to the national curriculum in mind. There is no expectation that a child will achieve a particular P scale by a given age, or that they will work through the P scales at a predetermined rate. However, attainment of a level by a particular age may help identify the likely rate of progress through the P scales.

Children do not undergo any formal assessment or testing and unlike the national curriculum, the awarding of a P level is left to the professional judgment of staff. It is expected that teachers will use their knowledge of the child, consider the contexts in which learning takes place and gather evidence from a variety of sources, to support their decisions and to make a 'best-fit judgment' based on everyday activity and continual monitoring and assessment.

The following from the document: 'Towards The National Curriculum in Maths' published by the DfES, helps illustrate P levels: in number, P levels range from level one where a pupil will: 'Encounter activities and experiences. May be passive or resistant. May show simple reflex responses. Any participation is fully prompted.' Illustrated by the example: 'Tolerate or show pleasure in hair brushing and hand massage as adult uses words like 'more'.'

Number level 3 states: 'Begin to communicate intentionally. Seek attention through eye contact, gesture or action. Request events or activities. Participate in shared activities with less support. Sustain concentration for short periods. Explore materials in increasingly complex ways. Observe the results of their own actions with interest. Remember learned responses over more extended periods.' And is illustrated by the example: 'Show some awareness of taking turns in a game or event. Offer items to people in turn.'

At level 4, subject related attainment is introduced eg 'Show an interest in number activities and counting.' With the given example: 'Experience numbers as names - bus routes, house numbers.' By level 8 this will have graduated to: 'Begin to use number names beyond ten - number of players in a team, houses in a street or count the number of pupils in the class or group.'

Unlike the standard national curriculum there is no expectation that a child will achieve a particular P scale by a given age, or to work through the p scales, at a predetermined rate. However attainment of a level by a particular age may help identify likely rate of progress through the P scales. The subject-related attainments of P4 to P8 are designed with transition to the national curriculum in mind.

Awarding of a P level is left to staff who are asked to use their professional judgment to decide the P level awarded. It is expected teachers will use their knowledge of the child, consider the contexts in which learning takes place, and gather evidence from a variety of sources to support their decisions. These 'best-fit judgments' are based on everyday activity and continual monitoring and assessment, there is no requirement for special testing or assessment to take place.

Testing, Assessing, and Examining

Foundation Stage Profile and Baseline Assessment

In 2002 statutory baseline assessments were replaced by the foundation stage profile. Some schools continue to use both. The purpose of base-line assessment (usually carried out during the first term in the reception year) was to enable the reception teacher to plan their teaching to match individual children's needs and eventually to judge the child's progress against this initial baseline assessment. The basic skills of speaking and listening, reading, writing, mathematics and personal and social development are assessed.
The Foundation Stage Profile has 13 summary scales covering the six areas of learning, which have to be completed for each child in state education by the end of his or her time in the foundation stage.
The areas of assessment are:

  • Personal, social and emotional development (how the child works, interacts and cooperates with others)
  • Communication, language and literacy (listening, speaking, reading and writing skills)
  • Mathematical development (focuses on number, basic calculations, shape, space, measures and mathematical language)
  • Knowledge and understanding of the world (including investigations, designing and making, Information Technology, cultures and beliefs)
  • Physical development (movement, sense of space, health and bodily awareness, the use of tools and equipment)

Assessment takes place throughout the year, and is based on on-going teacher observations. Parental comments, as well as observations by other practitioners including nursery staff may be taken into consideration. Results are reported to the DfES.

The foundation stage profile has been criticised by OFSTED for being overly bureaucratic and time consuming, a tick box exercise that does not adequately prepare children for Year 1 and too complicated for parents.

Key Stages and Tests

Children in English state (maintained) schools must follow the national curriculum. This is intended to ensure a broad and balanced education split into 8 levels, with the most able children expected to attain level 8 by the end of KS3. P levels exist for those children unlikely to achieve a level one. The National curriculum subjects are: art and design, citizenship, design technology, English, Geography, history, ICT, mathematics, modern foreign languages, music, PE, science, RE, careers education, work-related learning, PSHE. Not all subjects are studied throughout. There are four key stages and the children are tested at the end of each key stage but only in the core subjects.

Standard Attainment Tests (SATs)
Children take Standard Attainment Tests (SAT`s) when they are 7, 11 and 14, and national examinations, often, though not exclusively, GCSE`s, at the age of 16 (end of key stage 4). SATs are statutory. State schools must report their results however, it is possible for a child to be disapplied from the tests. Many independent schools take SATS but are not obliged to report the results.

Key Stage One (Y1-Y2)
Covers the 5-7 age group. Schools have flexibility over when and how the tests in reading, writing (including spelling and handwriting) and maths are administered. The average 7 year old is expected to achieve a level 2. This is not a pass/fail situation; the tests are designed to indicate whether a child is working at, above or below the target level. The tests can be taken at a time to suit the school and are not reported separately but are used to inform teacher assessment of the child. Teacher assessment looks at speaking, listening and science skills as well as the areas covered by the tests.

Key Stage Two (Y3-Y6)
This covers children aged 7 to 11. Children are tested in English, maths and science, at age 11 (Y6), prior to the move to senior school,. The results are reported to the DfES and to parents. The average 11 year old is expected to achieve a level 4.

Key Stage Three (Y7-Y9)
Tests are taken in Y9, at senior school, when a child is typically aged 14. Children are tested in English, maths and science and the results are reported to the DfES and to parents. Teachers assess pupils in these areas plus art, citizenship, design technology, geography, history, ICT, MFL, music, PE. The target level at KS3 is level 5, with the most able achieving a level 8. There are wide variations reported in the levels achieved at this stage. Very few independent schools take key stage 3 tests, most will have assessed the child at 11+ or 13 + via The Common Entrance examination (see below).

Key Stage Four/GCSE (Y10-Y11)
Most children embark on a two-year GCSE course (in some schools pupils sit some GCSEs at the end of Y10). Children are usually encouraged to take a broad base of subjects including: English (usually language and literature); maths; science (biology, chemistry, physics - a combination of one, two or all three in a guise of awards: single, dual etc); a modern foreign language (no longer compulsory) - most schools offer French and often a choice of German, or Spanish but always check with a school first; a design technology subject; humanities (history Geography, RE), and the Arts (visual and performing). Often business/vocationally orientated subjects such as business studies, economics, media studies, and ICT are offered. Social sciences: psychology, sociology are popular in some schools as are Latin, Greek and Classical studies. Virtually all GCSE's have a compulsory coursework element worth between 20% and 100% of the marks (some independent schools have opted to follow the IGCSE courses in some subjects as there isn't a coursework element). Non-GCSE courses such as PE (which is offered at GCSE), games and Personal Social Health Education (PSHE) or similar, plus citizenship continue to be followed.

Children usually make their GCSE - option choices in Y9 following extensive consultation with the school, their parents and teachers. At this stage the proposed level of study will be discussed. Most subjects offer two tiers of entry, foundation and higher. Foundation level study is aimed at grades C-G and Higher Grades A*-D. Most schools and colleges will expect a student to have achieved at least a grade B in any subject to be studied at A level.

The International GCSE (IGCSE) is becoming an increasingly popular option in independent schools. The IGCSE offers more rigour and depth, than GCSE enabling the more able to be stretched while still meeting the needs of others. IGCSE can be awarded without coursework ie by 100% examination although coursework options exist. Exams are graded in the same way as GCSEs: Foundation targets grades C-G and Higher grades A*-D. Many people consider the IGCSE to be more akin to the old style O level than GCSE. For example maths IGCSE has a strong emphasis on algebra and introduces calculus, in preparation for A level maths.

Further Study

A levels
All A levels are now unitised rather than based on a final exam. An A level course usually consists of a mix of AS awards taken at the end of the first year of A level study and A2 courses in the second year. Students can choose when to cash in their awards.

Advanced Subsidiary (AS) Award
Still a separate qualification that can be taken in the first year of A levels but a recent change means that they will no longer count towards your final A level grade. Students often take these as an additional subject if they are uncertain about A level choices as they can be dropped at the end of year 12.

This is the second year of A level study. Success at A2 should enable a student to matriculate for university study.

A levels are often criticised for not offering a broad base of study post 16. Some schools offer the IB as an alternative to A levels. A few schools (in the independent sector) offer only the IB. A handful of schools in the UK, usually those offering an American style curriculum offer IB from a younger age. The International Baccalaureate also known as International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is for students aged 16 – 18; IBMYP, the middle years programme of the International Baccalaureate is for children aged 11-16 and IBPYP is the Primary years programme of the International Baccalaureate - for children aged 3 to 11. A recent addition is the IBCP, the International Baccalaureat Careers Programme, offered by a small number of schools as an alternative to the IB Diploma.

The Scottish System

Scotland has its own curriculum, examinations and examining body.

The 5-14 Curriculum and Assessment
There are (non-statutory) guidelines relating to the content and assessment of the primary and S1 and S2 curriculum (prior to standard grade study). This is similar to the English National curriculum although the assessment regime is different. The 5-14 guidelines cover: environmental studies, expressive arts, language, mathematics, and religious and moral education.

Children are assessed throughout their primary and secondary school years in reading, writing and mathematics. They are awarded levels A to F, A is the lowest level, usually awarded to children in P2/3, F is the highest level awarded to the most able children in S2. Pupils are assessed at each level when the teacher feels the child will achieve that level. It is possible for different children in a class to be assessed at different levels simultaneously. This differs to SATs where a child will sit an exam that covers a range of levels, and be awarded one of the levels within the range.

Core Skills
The Core Skills framework extends progressively through the Scottish curriculum, starting with the 5-14 age range, continuing through Standard Grade courses and National Qualifications, and carrying on into degrees, HNCs and HNDs, and SVQs. National standards for core skills are approved through the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and aim to help a student identify particular strengths as well as areas for improvement
The core skills are identified as:
       Problem Solving
       Information Technology
       Working with Others

Standard Grades
Usually studied during the third and fourth year of secondary school (S3 and S4), standard grades are similar to GCSE. Students usually take seven or eight subjects including Maths and English. There are three levels of study: Credit, General and Foundation. (Similar to higher, intermediate and foundation at GCSE). Students can take exams at two levels - Credit and General, or General and Foundation to help achieve the best grade possible. Standard grades are awarded at levels 1 to 7, one is the highest, seven the lowest. Students, who complete the course but do not achieve a grade 1-6, are awarded a grade 7. A student wishing to study a subject at Higher Level will ordinarily need a credit level (grade 1 or 2) pass. As with GCSE, most Standard Grade subjects have a coursework element, which counts towards the final mark. Standard grades are offered only to school students. Adults take national courses/units. Some schools offer intermediate rather than standard grade for students in S3 and S4.

National Courses/Units
Adults study for national courses or units rather than standard grades. The table indicates the standard grade/national courses equivalents:

National Courses/Units         Standard Grades         Approx. English Equivalent
Advanced Higher                                                                         A2
Higher                                                                                        AS
Intermediate 2                     Standard Grade-Credit         GCSE Grades A*-C
Intermediate 1                    Standard Grade-General         GCSE Grades D-E
Access 3                          Standard Grade-Foundation       GCSE Grades F-G
Access 2                                                                      Entry Level Qualifications,
                                                                                                Level 3
Access 1 (for students who                                              Basic skills/entry level
require considerable support                                        qualifications, levels 1 & 2
with their studies)

National Courses/Units are sometimes referred to as 'Higher Still', although higher still is often used to refer to study at intermediate level. Qualifications can be built up over time, encouraging students to progress to the highest level they can achieve. Colleges may offer vocational NQ courses and units in eg tourism, care, construction, business etc. Access courses are assessed by the school or college, groups of units built up by students at Access levels 2 and 3 can lead to 'Cluster awards'. Access courses do not have a final exam. Intermediate 1 is equivalent to standard grade at foundation level and intermediate 2 equates with credit level at standard grade. Intermediate 2 offers a route to Highers. Some schools offer intermediate courses and units instead of, or as well as, standard grades to students in S3 and S4.

Higher level study usually requires a pass at standard grade credit level, or intermediate 2. Highers (or A levels) are usually required for entry to degrees and Higher National courses (HNCs and HNDs) at university.

Advanced Higher
Advanced Highers are aimed at students who have passed Highers and are usually taken in sixth year at school, or at college. They build on higher level study and are particularly useful for entry into higher education. Advanced Highers are considered broadly equivalent to A2 in England.

Entry to Independent Public Schools


Senior schools generally offer Pre-tests at 11+ to help build up a short-list of suitable applicants. The multiple choice tests are taken online, often at the student's current school. They can only be taken once in a year and the results are shared amongst all schools applied for. The candidates are either given an unconditional offer or, most likely, an offer conditional on 13+ Common Entrance results. A brand-new move is being considered which would allow candidates to exchange the Common Entrance exam for a digital portfolio, demonstrating that they have achieved the required level in the two years following the Pre-test.

11+ Entrance Exam

Usually consisting of tests written and marked by the schools themselves in Maths, English, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. Common Entrance at 11+ consists of English, Maths and Science, taken over two days and set at a high Key Stage 2 SATs level, with extension questions for the more able.

13+ Entrance Exam

Usually set by the ISEB but some Independent Schools set and mark their own. Normally taken in January but occasionally in November or May/June. The core subjects (English, Maths, Science) are compulsory and can be taken at more than one level. Additional subjects, include History, Geography, Languages (Modern and Ancient) and Religious Studies. Again, Modern Languages and the Classics can be taken at different levels.

Interviews for Entry to a School
Some schools interview all their candidates and even their parents as well. Others interview only scholarship candidates. Most interview those who have passed a minimum standard in the examinations. Interviews may be with the headteacher or with other senior teachers. There may well be further tests done at the interview. For example, if Jessica did well in her English paper but less well in her maths, she may well be taken off by the maths department and given some maths exercises to do. This should not be a cause for alarm but it is as well to be prepared for the possibility.

While, obviously, it is a good idea to be able to talk about a book you have read recently and know well enough to discuss, you cannot prepare for interviews. In fact, it is unwise to try to prepare. Children who have been drilled beforehand usually sit tongue-tied trying to remember what was practised at home, what she said in the practice, what Daddy told her to say. Interviewers will look for spontaneity, friendliness, a willingness to think, to join in and to listen. This is especially important if Jessica is interviewed in a group with maybe two or three other candidates. Alternatively, she may be seen on her own and, again, the interviewer will look for a relaxed, open approach, not a prepared speech.

Entry to a selective school

Extracted from How to prepare your child for entry to a selective school

Mercifully, it is now accepted and understood that many of the brightest individuals have problems such as dyslexia which may mask their true abilities. Most schools now have support staff to help children with these problems. If Jessica is, for example, dyslexic or if you suspect some significant problem of this kind, it is a good idea to discuss it with her tutor. It is also usually a good idea to alert your first choice school to the problem before the examination. That way, when they are assessing the papers and determining who to recall for interview, they Awill be apprised of the special circumstances in Jessica's case and be less inclined to dismiss her efforts without proper scrutiny. The efforts of an able but mildly dyslexic child should look different from those of a child who is less able.

If you suspect that Jessica might have a specific learning difficulty - and there are many different kinds in addition to dyslexia - it is probably wise to have her assessed by a specialist, ideally much earlier in her school career than year 6. There are various ways of doing this. The first thing is to express your concern to her class teacher. The teacher should, whether she thinks you have a point or not, refer Jessica to the school's Special Educational Needs Coordinator or Extra Learning Support Teacher. Every state school has one of these. You have the right to do this yourself if the teacher fails to do so. From then on there is an established Code of Practice which should, eventually, result in Jessica being given extra help in school. However, the provision for this varies hugely from borough to borough and school to school. Your guide through this will be your local Parent Partnership - an invaluable National organisation. Your local authority will be able to give you their telephone number.

If you decide you cannot wait for this system to work - it can take the best part of a school year in worst cases - and if you have the means to do so - you could get Jessica assessed by a recognised Special Needs teacher or Educational Psychologist. You should be warned, however, that this can be an expensive process. The British Dyslexia Association will help you with finding someone in your area and with much other helpful advice besides.

Either way, you should end up with an assessment or a report you can copy and send to the senior school of your choice before the examination. To approach a school with this information after the examination and when you have had your polite refusal, looks like special pleading and is too late. It needs stressing that a report of this kind and an acknowledgement of the problem is an entirely positive step - above all for the child. It is extraordinary the lengths clever children go to to compensate for their, sometimes very severe, difficulties at school. Nonetheless, an unacknowledged - and unaided - problem of this kind can have huge repercussions in later life. A proper assessment and even a Statement of Special Educational Needs or an Educational Psychologist's report can release all kinds of help - and funds - unavailable otherwise to support a child in all kinds of ways throughout a school career and will, above all, be of huge relief and benefit to the child. It is very definitely not something to be embarrassed by or afraid of.



AQA Assessment and Qualifications Alliance - Tel: 0800 197 7162 - Tel (outside the UK): +44 161 696 5995 -  Email: [email protected]

ASDAN  -  Tel: 0117 941 1126 - Email: [email protected] - Website:

CCEA Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment Tel: 02890 261 200 - Email: [email protected]

EDEXCEL Website:

JCGQ Email: [email protected] - Website:

OCR Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations - Tel: 01223 553998 - Email: [email protected] - Website:

SQA Scottish Qualifications Authority - Tel: 0345 213 5000 - Email: [email protected]

WJEC Welsh Joint Education Committee Tel: 029 2026 5328 - Email: [email protected] - Website:

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