GCSE reform – have your say

GCSE reform has been in the pipeline since the publication of the 2010 Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching. Early proposals were for a newly named qualification (English Baccalaureate Certificate), a single awarding exam board, and the removal of ‘modular’-style exams.  After numerous u-turns, rethinks and steps back, the confirmed GCSE reforms were announced by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, last week.

A new qualification, GCSE (England), will be introduced for teaching in September 2015, with the first examinations taking place in 2017. As originally proposed, the qualifications will move away from the modular approach of current GCSEs, where multiple exams are taken throughout the period of the course. GCSE (England) will be linear, with exams taken only at the end of course. Along with this, coursework and assessment will be removed from all courses except science.

The specifics of subject content were also released last week. The BES has been closely involved in the development of the science criteria, through both the Society of Biology and SCORE (Science Community Representing Education). There have been a number of changes made already to the ecological content of the science subject content which the BES supports. The inclusion of a requirement to carry out practical work ensures that students are able to understand the importance of evidence in science, and can develop a number of transferable skills. Ecological interactions and interdependence are introduced across more topics, and rote-learning of the nitrogen cycle has been reduced in favour of a deeper understanding of its role in an ecosystem.

Other changes are not so clear-cut, and work still needs to be done to ensure that GCSEs give pupils a solid grounding in science and scientific methods. There is now the opportunity to do so through the Department for Education’s consultation on the subject content, which is open to all until 22 August. Specific questions asked include:

  • Do the proposed subject content and assessment objectives cover the appropriate knowledge and understanding for GCSEs in these subjects?
  • Is the relative weighting of the assessment objectives right?
  • Has the right practical content for science been identified to allow students to gain the skills to progress in the subject?

In addition, Ofqual, the examination and qualification regulator, has launched a consultation on the regulatory aspects of the proposed GCSE changes, open until 3 September.

The BES will be working with our members and partner organisations to develop a response to this over the next few months. We would very much welcome your views as part of this, either on the science criteria specifically, or on the GCSE reforms in general. More work still needs to be done on the ecological content, especially in relation to mathematical applications and in the level of coherence at a fine scale.

In addition to GCSE changes, A level reform has also been proposed along the same timetable. Like GCSEs, these would become a linear qualification. AS levels would be classified as a separate qualification and no longer required for an A level. As part of these changes, Ofqual is beginning reviews of the subject criteria. With implementation of new qualifications intended for 2015, there’s a tight timeline ahead.

Much confusion and uncertainty remains around the process of review for A-levels making it difficult to report accurately what is expected to happen. However, the learned societies are expected to have opportunities to comment on subject content, assessment and practical aspects of biology qualifications.

With this in mind, the BES is looking to set up an expert panel of those involved in both undergraduate and A level education to advise on the ecological content of A levels. If you are a member who is interested in this progression from A level to undergraduate level and would like to be a part of the panel, please get in touch. Let us know via the comments box below, or by emailing Karen Devine, Education Manager.