KS4 Reforms and Accountability: The Good and the Bad

Posted on February 7, 2013


This blogpost is a fairly immediate response to the government’s response to the consultation about KS4 Reforms (hereafter to be known as “Gove’s humiliating climbdown” if twitter and twiggy are to be believed) and the new consultation on changes to Accountability in Secondary Schools. I apologise if my early reading proves to be woefully inaccurate, as in the world of Michael Gove nothing remains fixed or constant plus I am trying to think my thoughts as I write.

I also apologise for not commenting on the National Curriculum consultation that is also out today, but at 221 pages the “slimmed down” proposals are more than I can master at the moment. I also think that it is the combination of GCSE reforms and KS4 accountability measure proposals that have a synergy worth blogging about here (apologies in advance to any primary colleagues).

The GCSE Uturn Itself – The Good

I’ve watched twitter with some amusement today at comments from the people who insisted a couple of months ago that there was no point in responding to the EBC consultation as it was a fait accompli from the mouth of a man who would never listen and never change his mind. Their charge now is that he should resign because he has listened to the results of a consultation and made some of the changes that they said he should. Having contributed to some of the woeful DfE mocksultations of the past decade or so (from both this government and its predecessor) and seen the shambolic and shameful twisting or results to suit pre-planned aims, I am genuinely astonished and genuinely pleased at the response to the KS4 Reforms consultation published today. And if, as is widely reported in the press today, it had something to do with the Lib Dems then I am pleased that at least in the closing years of a coalition administration there is some moderating influence of the smaller party over the larger one.

I am also pleased at the potential dehubrification of the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, although I suspect that the juxtaposition of his rather odd speech the other day was as politically motivated as has rather humbling tone in Parliament today. In spite of this media-savvy image posturing, there is no doubt that he is nursing a bloody nose and that ought to put a rein onto some of his worst policy excesses for a while. It should also inspire more teachers and school leaders to get involved in future consultations of this is what just 5500 responses can achieve. And it should give even greater grease to the elbow of pressure groups to mobilise their supporters, not least of all through online networks such as twitter.

The GCSE Uturn Itself – The Bad

I’m most worried about the tone of the response to this uturn by teachers, school leaders and their unions. The demonisation of Michael Gove is so complete that at times it seems that critics of his policies and pronouncements have welded them so tightly to his personality that they can’t recognise a change for the better when it comes along. And yes, I know that there are some significant problems with the proposals as they stand that will need to be countered (I’m about to blog about them) but if we allow him to be seen as the moderate voice in the face of unbending and overly hostile criticism then we will lose the hearts and minds of those whose support I strongly believe we need. Now is the time not to say he has given nothing, but to press ahead and set the agenda whilst his plans are in disarray. More of that later.

KS4 Reforms – The Good

Reformed GCSEs should remain universal qualifications – This is definitely a win as there will now be continuity from one cohort (Y8 to Y7 was to be the fissure point) to another and from one subject to another (the EBCs for the EBacc subjects and whatever for the others was the proposal). The trashing of the GCSE brand would have created a two-tier system in a number of ways.

In English Language and Maths…pupils receiving more information from AOs on their performance – The exam boards need to be opened up to far greater scrutiny. This is the first step that I believe should end in the ability to scrutinise marking of exams in real time.

The current system of tiered papers…places a cap on ambition – The ending of a foundation tier paper and the mooted idea of “extension papers” is a really welcome announcement and brings us closer to the original intention of GCSEs.

We want to see internal assessment kept to a minimum and used only where there is a compelling case – Ding dong the wicked witch of controlled assessment is killed stone dead (as it was under the original proposals) and now we have the opportunity to push for evidence of drafting in English, speaking and listening in Languages, working to a brief in Media and experimentation in Science amongst others. Let us exhort our awarding bodies to keep the baby of valid internal assessment as the bathwater of CAs is chucked unceremoniously down the drain of history.

The reformed GCSEs will include Ebglish literature and English but not a combined English option – A pointless qualification that was used to help push students through to a C. It is another demise that is unlikely to be mourned.

A combined science option worth two GCSEs but not a combined science option worth one GCSE – Again, another win. We all know that a core science without the additional is a failed product of the A*-C accountability regime. Double science now becomes a virtual KS4 entitlement.

We are keen for new GCSEs to be available in a wide range of modern and classical languages – There was a lot of suggestion at the time of the consultation that the DfE wanted to take community languages out of the EBacc qualifications (something Mr Gove didn’t deny at the London Festival of Education) and this would unfairly penalise those students, including many at my school, who are already taking English as a foreign language.

We have decided not to proceed with the proposal for a Statement of Achievement – One of the best pieces of news in this response, with the DfE agreeing that it would become “a stigma” having one.

We are no longer intending to run a competition to identify the best qualification in each subject – It’s impossible to know how far this is a result of the power of the exam boards and how far a compliment to the work of Ofqual’s letter urging caution, but a bidding war for assessment contracts was only going to get ugly and uglier, with the students and teacher-markers caught in the middle. That said, it would be good to see the Secretary of State take on the exam boards at some point, but that looks like it has been made impossible by his initial overreaching with the initial timescale.

KS4 Reforms – The Bad

There is a strong case for reformed GCSEs to have a new grading scale – This is just an attempt to debunk the ‘Old GCSE’ brand without the EBCs coming in and I hope Ofqual, who have been charged with making it happen, conclude that it is a foolish idea.

The use of examination aids should be kept to a minimum – I’m putting this on the bad side but in reality I am uncertain. My concern is that a hard line on exam aids could test non-subject qualities (such as a good memory) and that consequently we could lose gifted scientists, for example, with poor recall of periodic tables. I could be persuaded.

We need to ensure that young people are able to make smooth transitions beyond age 16 – I don’t disagree with this sentiment, but the biggest failing of this response to the consultation is that it says nothing about the possibility of an unfragmented, unbroken and unfractured programme of study for 14-19 year olds. In doing so this government fails in precisely the same way as the Blair government failed: failing to recognise that it is the self-cannibalising assessment at 16 that prevents just the “smooth transition” mentioned above. The CBI are calling for a 14-19 approach and now should be the time for it, not another retinkering with GCSEs and A-Levels.

We believe that it will be possible for new GCSEs to be made available…for first teaching from September 2015 – As the scope of the reform is significantly less than previously the timescales are perhaps a little more manageable, but a government looking to significantly rebrand a qualification, raise standards and perhaps change the grading structure should be giving the assessing bodies and professional organisations more time to ensure it is done properly, rather than play to political timescales as is most patently the case here.

Accountability Proposals – The Good

The assessment and accountability systems should be the servant, not the master, of excellent teaching – Now here’s a slam dunk of an opening to a consultation. I love this. Of course the devil is in the detail of the consultation and implementation but this is like a campfire to gather around and warm our hands to. I suggest we all take this I our SLTs because it applies there as much as it does to the DfE.

To publish an ‘average point score 8’ measure – Apart from the horrible clumsiness of the title as it currently is I like this a lot. It would include English, Maths, at least three EBacc subjects and three others (the highest from any other subjects, EBacc or otherwise). The fact that it is an APS measure means that it is in a school’s interest to focus on improving grade C to D, but also grade F to E and grade B to A. It is already the measure that I tell governors is the best quality indicator of our school’s work.

That it has slots for up to three non-EBacc subjects means that attainment in all subject (not just 5, or 3 when you strip out English and Maths) means that foundation subjects are given equal status in terms of impact on school success and that the EBacc, whilst still there as a measure (perhaps not for long), need not be the driver of curriculum provision and option choices that it was threatening to be.

The key progress measure should be based on these eight qualifications, and calculated using a Value Added method – Yes, you heard right!! The key measure is going to be a progress, not an achievement, measure. I’ll say it again: Michael Gove is proposing that the number one measure for school accountability is a progress measure. I’m not really able to add any more to that as I hit my head on the way down.

We propose a threshold measure showing the percentage of pupils achieving a good standard in both English and mathematics GCSEs – Not really good or bad, but more an accepted part of the current educational landscape. How this will sit with other ‘floor standard’ measures (there appear to be three) will remain to be seen.

The reforms to accountability measures…will not lead to any changes to the current EBacc measure – A lot of people today have been suggesting this as an example of a fault with the proposals, but I have it as a good point. The EBacc is essentially neutered by this proposal and the decision to retain GCSEs: it is not one of the three floor standard measures (English & Maths, Best 8 APS, Best 8 VA). That there will not now be a distinction between EBCs and GCSEs means that the retention of this measure will encourage students to take up Languages, Sciences and Humanities (which ought now to include RE) but will not penalise schools for encouraging students to take up the Arts, Technology and other subjects that could potentially have been under threat.

We plan to show how schools perform compared to similar schools, as well as national benchmarks – I remember this once upon a time. The so-called ‘better’ schools hated it. It functioned as an equaliser, a CVA for schools.

We propose to remove the requirement to report KS3 results to the Department – About time too, but why retain them for reporting to parents? Isn’t it about time that the levels were put out of their misery given that they appear to be going to play little to no part in the National Curriculum anyway. They are decaying rapidly and need to be terminated.

We would like to explore further ways to recognise schools that offer a wide range of [enrichment] opportunities – Sounds good but as likely to happen as the Data Warehouse. This feels like the work of a Blue Sky Thinking SpAd, especially as it then says that league tables “cannot and should not encompass the much broader range of activities”. We want to recognise, but not reward is the message.

Accountability Proposals – The Bad

To publish extensive data about secondary schools through the Data Portal – Don’t get me wrong here. I have no problems with making data available to people, but we all know how well governments do major IT projects and the chances are it’ll have as much success as Ofsted’s ParentView in terms of usage.

Schools should have to meet a set standard on both the threshold and progress measure to be above the floor target – This sounds like it should be on my good side because it sounds like it should draw in more coasting schools, but I’m not sure that it will. Coasting schools in ‘good’ areas are often compensated for by parental affluence and so rarely fall foul of value added measures.

To introduce sample tests in KS4 to track national standards over time – This is the government accountability measure and seems startlingly similar to training teachers and students how to pass the PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS international tests. Shouldn’t we have our own standards indicators built into the radically reformed and rigourised GCSEs? Or should we just all start teaching kids GCSEs in PISA?

A school would gain recognition on [the average 8] measure for a pupil with good results in English and Maths along with three good grades in vocational qualifications – This seems like a potentially good idea but the consultation does not make it clear. Is it average score of all qualifications taken below 8 or is the average divided by 8 subjects, even if students haven’t taken all 8? The text seems to suggest that, but if true then surely schools would push ‘weaker’ kids to do fewer qualifications? A new perverse incentive? We will need more clarity at least.

For the first year of new exams we could use a relative measure for the floor standard – So, having failed to bring in norm-referenced assessment for students, this proposal seeks to introduce it for schools. The kicker is that it is not being proposed as an annual measure, but as a benchmark to be set to measure “improvements across the system”. It all sounds very much like a piece of work for Winston Smith and the Ministry of Truth to me.

The Data Warehouse could also be used to gather more data about non-statutory tests administered by secondary schools – This has the look and feel of a doomed micromanagement tool that we have seen come and go many times down the past few years. How on earth could non-statutory tests be used comparatively, which parents would give a toss anyway and why would schools put them on if they are not required to do so (and academies, I’m assuming, wouldn’t be). Factor into this IT infrastructure costs and I give this a 0.00001% chance of coming to fruition. It feels very New Labour too, and against the spirit of most of Mr Gove’s stated aims and intentions.

KS4 Reforms plus Accountability Proposals

No tiering plus abandonment of A*-C measures – This is a fantastic combination of announcements that will allow teachers to raise the achievement of all students and rid ourselves once and for all of the verbal tic that A*-C has become for teachers and 5A*-C has become for school leaders. It ought to ensure that no student is ever driven mad by that mantra ever again.

The retention of GCSEs plus the Best 8 APS accountability measure – I strongly believe that these two reforms could unpick the damage done to the Arts, Media, Technology, Vocational and other non-core, non-EBacc subjects. The failure of Michael Gove to persuade anyone of the need for EBCs has meant that there is no schism between those subjects and others as had been feared by those contributing to the initial consultation. Add to that the fact that two-thirds of the proposed headline accountability measures are based on the best 8 qualifications (three of which can be non-EBacc) and you have the conditions in which there is no excuse for schools to not support their non-EBaxc subjects at KS4. After two years of making life uncomfortable for foundation subjects, the government may well have just gone and created itself something that actually does look and feel a little bit like a genuine Baccalaureate.


These reforms are, I believe, based upon a quite fundamental misjudgement about what we need to do to properly modernise and make fit for purpose our assessment and accountability regimes in late-secondary education. Instead of trying in many different ways to reform the 14-16 and 16-19 qualifications in this country we should be genuinely learning from overseas and building a more coherent and less cluttered 14-19 provision such as that mooted by Tomlinson, wanted by many education professionals and the CBI, and actually delivered by many schools in the form of the International Baccalaureate. But it would seem that such sensible reform is beyond the wits of any of our politicians.

Bearing this overarching weakness (to my way of thinking, at least) in mind then I believe today has been a good day overall for the future of assessment and accountability at KS4. It has the potential to ensure that all subjects are taken seriously by schools when making their KS4 curriculum offer to students. It has the potential to ensure that all subjects are prioritised relatively equally (the exceptions being English and Maths) in terms of helping students in raising achievement. It had the potential to ensure that all students, not just those at some arbitrary borderline, are encouraged to achieve their best and make that final push. It has the potential to ensure a focus upon learning rather than meeting the demands of the next assessed piece of work. And it has potential in many other ways with far fewer pitfalls than we could ever have dreamed of after the initial consultation last year.

It is now up to school leaders to make these areas of potential become a reality for the teachers and students we have a responsibility (not just an accountability) for, and to ensure that we don’t steer our schools directly towards those awful pitfalls of unintended consequences and perverse incentives however tempting the short-term gains might be.