They are the generation that have faced major changes to the education system, public testing and examinations throughout their time in school, writes Hilary French, Head of Newcastle High School for Girls.
Change, change and more change. For children sitting public examinations this year and next, they are well used to the vagaries of the English examination system. Throughout their whole time in school, they have been the generation that has faced some of the biggest changes to the education system and public examinations.
When still in the juniors, they witnessed the abolition of KS2 Science SATS, now they are in the thick of it again as the country moves away from coursework and modular GCSEs to linear two year courses; the removal of AS and a return to two year A level courses, not to mention, the introduction next year of Grades 1 – 9 and the phasing out of A-C grades at GCSE.
Put aside whether the change is for the long term good, changing the formula mid-way through a child’s educational life, means the impact is great and potentially very troubling. Changes to the examination system complicate the task of preparing young people for public examinations and long term educational career planning, even if the changes do allow for more teaching time and space for the entrants to develop intellectually and emotionally before they are tested.
Many, including the pupils themselves, feel they are guinea pigs trialling a new system that is being rushed through and with limited guidance on how the changes may impact on university and college applications and more imminently how the papers themselves will be structured and marked.
The examining boards have produced several mock papers that reflect the new format for entrants but this is a poor substitute for the years of past papers and marking schemes that have traditionally been revision fodder for students in the run up to examinations.
The fear of the unknown and what to expect when they turn the papers over in June is compounded by the talk that the marking will be more rigorous, especially at A level and that grades are likely to be lower as a consequence. Students and teachers have already been warned that when introduced next year, the new 9 grade at GCSE will be harder to achieve than the current A* in a bid to differentiate between the brightest candidates. This will shift the pressure to GCSEs making the results all the more important as AS levels are phased out.
This all means that secondary education and the students in it are facing the most dynamic changes to the qualifications landscape that has ever taken place. The system won’t regain equilibrium until 2020 when all applicants entering university from England will apply holding a full set of reformed A levels and GCSE qualifications. In the meantime, over the next four years, UCAS has discovered that schools and colleges may be offering up to 15 different combinations of examinations with no one programme emerging as the clear frontrunner. This means that universities and colleges will have to anticipate and deal with a much greater diversity of qualifications from applicants and will need to revise their admissions policies accordingly to ensure that no one is disadvantaged as a result of decisions made by their school.
At Newcastle High, we, like others, are looking to universities and colleges to explain how they will navigate these changes and how they will make informed and fair decisions on the applications they receive. Some universities we’re working with have already produced these statements and all have expressed their commitment to being flexible and working with schools and colleges during the transition phase.
But this level of uncertainty is difficult. With the Easter holidays now upon us and the examination season looming large on the horizon, many will continue to fear the new and unknown.
The uncertainty, lack of clarity and the pace of change has been less than helpful but thankfully at Newcastle High, we have been working closely with the examination boards our girls will be taking and we are confident that our girls are well prepared not just for the new examination format but for the changes that lie ahead.
As a school we have taken the decision that from next year all Year 12 students will study 3 A levels and an EPQ. The line has been drawn in the sand and the girls are clear about their choices for A levels. Many schools are still debating the route they will take. It is testament to the number and complexity of the changes facing the exam system in England that there is a whole page on the Gov.UK website dedicated to the changes. It’s all there in black and white but even as an educator who is familiar with the impending changes, the volume and pace of change is still startling and it is hard to understand fully the impact both for teachers and the children facing the newly reformed examinations.
Change is always difficult and fraught with potential problems and uncertainty. As a school, we support change that brings greater academic and examination rigour but we would have welcomed a more measured and managed transition.
My message to our girls and anyone facing examinations this summer term is focus on what you can control; concentrate on your revision and practise your examination technique; do not concern yourself with the wider issues, these are variables that you can not control, nor can you change them. Good luck!