More maths in new-look exams

A-levels and GCSEs in arts subjects will be more rigorous and maths will become increasingly important, in new exams that will be phased in from 2015.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said that the new GCSEs and A-levels will correct the “pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down”, the BBC reports. Maths will become increasingly important in a range of subjects, and exams in arts subjects will be made more demanding.

Changes for specific subjects include:

  • Economics A-level: the role of central banks and financial regulation will be introduced
  • History A-level: topics will need to cover at least 200 years rather than 100 years
  • Science GCSE: human genome biology and other ‘cutting edge’ content will be introduced
  • History GCSE: a wider range of historical periods will be studied, with more emphasis on UK history.

Exam regulator Ofqual had already announced that GCSEs are to be graded from 9 to 1, rather than A* to G at present. The new ‘super grade’ 9 will be for exceptional students, with only half the number of pupils who currently obtain A* grades achieving it. Also, GCSEs will be tied to an international benchmark for the first time ever, with a grade five pass being equivalent to a top-grade pass in the OECD’s PISA tests.

ASCL’s Brian Lightman warned that schools and pupils face “enormous pressure” during the switch to the new exams. “The success of these very ambitious changes will depend on effective implementation and high quality communication and preparation for schools from the awarding bodies,” he said. “We still have not seen specific content for the exams nor details of how it will be assessed. Therefore there is no way of saying with any certainty that these new qualifications will be tougher than what is now in place.”

What’s your reaction to these changes? Do you think they will raise standards or do you share Brian Lightman’s reservations?

12 thoughts on “More maths in new-look exams

  1. It is about time we had some sort of international benchmark for our exam courses but I am sceptical that this government will implement any changes that are internationally recognised. Look at the EBacc – in the rest of Europe, you have to be at least 18 to be awarded a Baccalaureat and it is equivalent to a collection of A levels. Is the proposed GCSE grading system in keeping with our European neighbours? No. In Germany for example, grades are awarded from 1, this being the highest. How can anyone say that half of those who currently achieve an A* will achieve the grade 9? Unless there are plans to ensure this latest scheme doesn’t fail at the end of its first cycle. I presume this is going to be another one syllabus suits all approach. With the growing number of students whose first language is not English, other students struggling to read and write, how is making exams harder for everyone going to work? I fear that this will compound the feelings of failure that some students experience. What we really need are two things: 1. a choice of exams syllabus appropriate to the abilities of students and not driven by school data and 2. a change in the work and learning ethic among some students. Focus more on students learning than on how they learn.

  2. A recent experiment in mathematics gave 16 year old students 3 months intensive tuition in the maths covered in an O-level syllabus from the early 1980s. Of the 40 students who then took the complementary O-level papers, every student bar one failed. These students had recently achieved predominantly A* to B grades in their maths GCSE.
    The level of dumbing down by stealth since the GCSE exams were introduced in 1988 is nothing short of a scandal. Three cheers for Michael Gove!

  3. I teach up to A level maths. Many of the topics I now teach at A level I first learnt myself, as a student, at the old O level. Grade inflation has eroded the level of education in the hard subjects for over 30 years. It is about time there was an adjustment. But where are you going to get the teachers to teach the subjects at this level? Many teachers I have known teaching at sub gcse level do not have the qualifications, nor the knowledge, to teach at GCSE let alone O level. Just give me space to write a full article on this subject and I could tell you much more.

  4. I’ve no problem personally with the suggestions but I have for the 90% of students who have very little use for it in their daily lives or known future lives. I’m not arguing that knowledge is NOT useful, only that REAL knowledge comes from having a known end product [interest/use] for the information that is being learnt. Normally this would typically come from working where industry-specific exams are of the more rigorous type that is envisaged by the new government proposals. Mental arithmetic should definitely be a MUST for ALL but I fear that 90% of students will feel further alienated from the school system arguing, with some justification that, “what’s the relevance of all this to me”?, regrettably . . .

  5. How will this affect pupils in Wales? Will the uptake of Modern Foreign Languages be encouraged?

  6. Same day, different dollar.
    This is not much different than when levels were introduced. We all know how to asses and that will be unlikely to change just because something is given a number instead of a letter. Mentally it will simply be 60/C=5, 70/B=6, 80/A=7, 90/A*=8, 95(or maybe 98)A**=9.
    It’s all job creation for Government officials – no-one ever stands up and says no. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, trouble is the Government is insistent on just smashing it anyway so a new system HAS to be bought.
    It’s all politics. Pupils nowadays work SO hard because the competition is so great and so much rides on it – university entrance, future job prospects. Those who cannot give that commitment are so disillusioned instead of trying they give up as it’s too overwhelming or they recognise those opportunities will be very unlikely to open up to them. And so you end up with two opposite ends of the spectrum with a huge chasm in between.
    Even if these exams are tougher teachers and pupils alike will simply rise to the challenge and in not so many years the same tractor wheel of derision and destruction shall be wheeled out, and we’ll all be told how awful we all are and how it all needs an overhaul AGAIN!
    If every child was to become zombie like in their desire to achieve these grades it wouldn’t be because they worked hard, or because the teachers were any good, but rather because it was all too easy!
    Until someone, anyone stands up to Gove and Wilshaw and reminds the world that they are both egomaniacs who believe their own hype then we simply have to suck it up.
    My heart goes out to children of today for this is the end of childhood. Even from the early years children will be on the treadmill to the factory. We removed their innocence,fun and freedom and now we remove the last bastion of childhood which is the beauty of genuine free time to just be.
    No, gotta get the skills for the future at 3 years, otherwise we’re all doomed….how do those ridiculous countries who only start education at 6 cope? They MUST be positively barbaric….oh wait, no they’re not, they’re the ones we’re trying to beat.

  7. I agree with Michael, in fact a maths colleague was saying much the same a few weeks ago. It’s one thing expecting highly of our students it’s quite another when the teachers come from the same system that we work within now, where that academic independence is not significant and we find that NQT +1 cannot teach without someone telling them what to do and providing the resources already developed. We’re training up a generation of teach/bots. They are not Ll like that, it’s a bit of an absurd generalisation, so don’t flame me, but they are waaaay more common than you’d think.

    In my dept we begin teaching GCSE skills in Y7, where you may not be able to teach the specific knowledge; it doesn’t matter. You teach the kids to be good independent learners and when the time comes they are ready to take on board all the new information and apply their study/skills to that. We don’t have them so they can be taught. We have them so they can learn, it’s very different. These new regs don’t worry me because I don’t let them. I know I prepare my kids to be able to work with any base text, it shouldn’t matter if it is Steinbeck or Spenser, the methods are the same.

  8. It is about time that exams are set, with higher standards, to actually test pupils’ knowledge,grasp of particular concepts and how they can convey a clear but literate understanding of academic subject matter. In turn then only people that are academically able and competent should be going to universities rather than an en masse deluge of students where mickey mouse subjects are catered for.

    Unfortunately when the word standards is mentioned regarding education and its inherent lacking, a cry of it being associated with elitism and privilege tends to come form the progressive teaching side. The result of this anti standards stance is supported by an accusation of institutionalised discrimination. It is this inherent priority associated with the utility of education over its inner content that is responsible for dumbing down. This in turn is coupled with a public policy that promotes the politics of inclusion at any cost which further embeds dumbing down.

    We have been used to constant grade inflation where egos are massaged rather than rigorous intellectual stretching and challenging assessment. Dumbing down has been the order of the day and failure is rarely ever encountered; everyone is a winner where an education is supposed to be entertaining,fun and child centred. Education involves individuals challenging their own perceptions of themselves and wanting to set higher expectations aiming to progress. Instead of trying to inspire children by stretching and challenging them the current system is geared towards making them ‘feel good’ whereby the inclusivist agenda puts self-esteem as a fundamental premise.

    Desperate attempts are made today to provide all and sundry with some kind of a qualification and as a direct result standards are nearly always changed to ensure that students succeed. Grade inflation and the devaluation of diplomas and degrees increases this fiddling with exams/assessment modes and such misguided attempts to provide equal opportunities to all have not led to the elimination of success underpinned by privilege.

    We now have, in education, the celebration of the ordinary which coexists with a lack of belief in the capacity of pupils to handle challenging and complex ideas within an era of inclusion and participation where the idea of low expectations does little to stimulate real success and overcoming failure…

  9. Think exams should take into consideration what is needed afterwards. Is our child’s future really based on exam results? Should our next generation be doomed by the boundaries of assessments? Why is everything assessed on academic skills? I am a firm believer in Maths, Science and Literacy but in the forms in which they will be useful in later life- teaching and learning should be based on experiences and for those of us who can’t sit and write down our thoughts and experiences at a time of life where we experience so many other changes in our own bodies, yet we are then doomed for the rest of our lives by these results… Results of exams taken when we are only approximately a fifth oft he way through our lives, yet more and more pressure is imposed at this time. Is this really the solution to the generation of people that in our dotage will be looking after us and having to make decisions for the next generations based on their poor experiences? For some I think it is great but for the masses failure is already set in their lives.

  10. If higher standards are once again going to be the order of the day then we have to accept a return to the days when the majority of students are not going to cope academically. People forget that only about 20% to 30% of students were ever capable of success at O level and only about 3% went to university. That is fine as long as academic success is not considered to be the only and best way forward in life. There are so many ways in which young people can excel and all of them should be valued. We need to build schools that offer a very wide curriculum so that young people have the chance to find out what really interests them. Academic achievement would only be one area in which students can be successful.

  11. So how about having maybe introducing a 2 tier system where there are traditional academic subjects… Let’s call them Something like ‘O’ levels. Then we could have less traditional academic subjects which we could call oh I don’t know something like ‘CSEs’… I could go on but I’m bored now….
    The point is that education should enable children to take a useful and productive role in society and news flash.. They all don’t need a degree to do it. There are many issues 2 PF which are…. 1) ..A large number of children will never be ‘fit for purpose’. They will grow up and become a drain on society. They will never take a useful role … No more heavy manual industries and there are only so many tesco / mcdonalds jobs to go around. 2) I am pretty sure that the government… Not just this one but any one, also does not have a clue or any kind of a master plan as to what jobs or skills will be needed 10 to 15 years from now. If they are so woefully behind the curve with something as straight forward as the construction industry, how could they possibly predict needs in more hi tec industries 10 years from now (start of secondary education to end of degree.)

  12. Mike, I am not quite sure if you are agreeing with my comment or not but I do agree that the government has absolutely no idea what it is doing with regard to educating our young people to be useful, happy and fulfilled members of society.

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