Whilst I have been critical of OFQUAL in previous posts, their advice to Michael Gove on his proposed new EBACC (English Baccalaureate Certificate) makes interesting reading. In the Autumn of 2010 Gove stunned the educational world by announcing the English Baccalaureate, apparently a new qualification but in fact simply a fancy way of saying whether or not students had managed Grade C GCSEs in certain subjects (English, Maths, Science, a Language and a Humanity subject). Since this information was already available, the EBACC didn’t seem to be adding much to the sum of human knowledge but would, when reported as a ‘column’ on so-called ‘school league tables’ of exam results, be another stick with which to beat teachers and schools. For the following two years, of course, schools would be unable to do a blind thing about raising the percentage of students achieving the EBACC since they (in Year 10 and 11) had already made their choices and couldn’t go back and pick a language or a humanity. A few details were issued in January 2011 at the time students in Year 9 were making choices about subjects, and schools had to hastily advise parents with little information themselves.
Fast forward to 2012 and Mr Gove announces plans to introduce the English Baccalaureate Certificate to replace GCSEs in key subjects. OFQUAL, the government examinations and qualifications watchdog, has written twice to Gove this term and their words ought to give him pause. The first criticism is of the wide aims of the proposed qualification. Gove has stated that he wants the EBC (as OFQUAL are calling it) to provide a good and internationally respected qualification for the whole ability range, that will stretch the most able and engage the less able, that will develop skills and knowledge needed for employment and higher education, encourage high quality teaching and provide a ‘signal of achievement’ for employers, colleges and universities. Furthermore, the qualification should be untiered, should provide reliable data for accountability purposes, with standards that can be maintained year on year and will be capable of being passed by a large majority of students. “Our advice is that there are no precedents,” says OFQUAL head Glenys Stacey (above), “that show that a single assessment could successfully fulfil all these purposes.”
Stacey continues her criticism by questioning how easy it will be to use the data produced to hold schools accountable in the first year since the qualification will have ‘unpredictable variability in outcomes’ at school level (so that’s what we had in English GCSE this summer!) She suggests that the kind of assessment envisaged, such as long essay-style answers, are less reliable in accountability terms, since more subjective to mark.
The third concern raised by OFQUAL centres on Gove’s planned ‘market reforms’: to have one provider per subject rather than the competition between exam boards which he claims, and some agree, has led to a falling of standards. One of the issues is that currently subject expertise is spread across three boards. If only one ‘wins’ the qualification in that subject, two thirds of the expertise will be lost.
OFQUAL is effectively calling on Gove to delay the ‘market reforms’ and adds “we do think it essential that you state as clearly as possible the curriculum and educational outcomes required”.