Thursday 20 September 2012

Britain to overhaul secondary school exam system

By Jonathan Eyal, The Straits Times, 19 Sep 2012

LONDON - The British government has announced plans for the biggest shake-up of the country's school examinations system in decades, in an effort to raise standards.

Under measures before Parliament, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams which students sit at 16 will be replaced by a new qualification called the English Baccalaureate Certificate, nicknamed "EBacc". Existing school league tables will also be abolished.

Some of the measures may be adjusted as a result of a public consultation period which has now started. And the new EBacc exams will be introduced progressively from 2017.

But Education Secretary Michael Gove made clear to lawmakers on Monday his determination to end "grade inflation and dumbing down". "Our aim is to have truly rigorous exams, competitive with the best in the world," he said.

The new system will ditch the current "module system" of teaching that allows candidates to retake parts of their course again and again. It will also cut back on the use of classroom assessment in favour of the end- of-year exam. The EBacc will also be anchored on core subjects like mathematics, history, geography and the sciences.

The current GCSE exams, introduced in the 1980s, have been criticised for encouraging schools to go for soft option subjects and teaching to the test, with the result that many youngsters leave school with a certificate, but not necessarily real knowledge.

More importantly, GCSE papers are set by five different examination boards which are commercial enterprises; they make money from the marking and from the textbooks they endorse. Since schools are rated according to how well they do in these examinations, they tend to pick boards where pass rates are highest, so the result is "a race to the bottom" as Mr Gove puts it.

Statistics seem to support his criticism. Last year's GCSE passes rose for the 23rd year in a row, with three times as many pupils gaining the top grades compared to 1988, when the exams started. And yet, according to the International Student Assessment, a survey administered by the OECD, a club for wealthy nations, Britain ranks only 26th out of 34 top countries in educational terms.

As part of the planned overhaul, students who fail can retake the exam but, if they fail again, all they will have upon leaving school is a "detailed transcript" of the courses they attended. To ensure higher standards, exam boards will have to fight to win a five-year monopoly right to run each subject paper throughout England.

The British exam reforms are not expected to affect students in Singapore. Although Singapore's GCE O-level examination scripts are marked in Britain, a student's final grade is determined by the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board and the Education Ministry, in consultation with University of Cambridge International Examinations. The exams are also based on the Singapore curriculum and syllabus.

Many of the details on EBacc are yet to be worked out. Nobody knows, for instance, what performance criteria will be applied to grading schools' performance.

Nor is it clear what fate awaits the current examination boards, which supply GCE and a variety of other exam papers to many English-speaking countries. Technically, the boards can continue their overseas activities unhindered but, if they wish to retain their English business, they will have to show greater rigour.

Employers welcomed the changes. "The government is right to focus on delivering rigorous assessment in our school system, which is part of raising overall achievement," said Mr Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills at the Confederation of British Industry.

But the opposition Labour Party castigated them as "divisive", a return to a period when some less-gifted youngsters left school with no certificates, and were rendered virtually unemployable.

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