Yesterday the House of Commons had oral questions on Children, Schools and Families.
Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green poured scorn on coursework as a method of assessment:
"May I ask the Minister also to consider the means of assessment and, in particular, the use of course work for GCSEs and AS-levels? As a parent of teenagers, I know that many of them regard this form of assessment as laughable. It might be assessing the candidates, but it might also be assessing the work of their elder sibling, their parents or their friends—no one can be confident that it is assessing the work of the candidates themselves. Will the Minister accept that this experiment is failing, because it is not providing fair assessment, and look again at how best to obtain accurate results in these important exams for young people?
Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that they are important exams. Indeed, my son is currently doing his course work for his second year of A-levels. He is taking the work extremely seriously—I hope—and this is the subject of much discussion. Course work is important, and it is important that it is completed properly. It varies between different subjects, and we have reduced the amount of course work as a component of certain GCSEs. I am confident that we have now struck the right balance in each of the different subjects. For example, as someone who studied geography to degree level, I know that course work is a really important element in that subject, and it should remain so."
This is a tricky area. On the one hand coursework is open to massive abuse, on the other exams really don’t favour everybody, and indeed an ability to complete an ongoing project successfully is arguably a more useful skill in the workplace than being good at tests.
Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove suggested that school examinations are also inadequate:
"May I first wish the Minister’s son good luck in his A-levels? I was surprised to hear that he is sitting his A-levels, because the Minister does not look old enough to have a son in the second year of the sixth form.
The Minister mentioned the exam regulator Ofqual, which is supposed to ensure that test standards are robust. Does he support its decision to order an exam board to lower marks in the latest set of GCSEs, and to make the exams easier with a pass mark of just 20 per cent.?
Jim Knight: I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that particular debate. There are three examination boards, as I recall, in respect of GCSEs, and one of them had a different view from the other two. In order to carry out its function properly, Ofqual decided that it was necessary to have some consistency across the board. That was what informed its decision. It was not about dumbing down; Ofqual has been very robust about that.
Michael Gove: Ofqual was not robust enough. As the Minister knows, it deliberately told one exam board to lower its marks. That exam board did so under protest and said that GCSEs would no longer be comparable with exams taken in the past. The Minister also knows that one of our leading headmasters has said that the new science GCSE has a
“terrifying absence of real science”.
Another leading headmaster said that its content had been reduced so that it was no longer appropriate for intelligent students. One hundred and eighty-seven independent schools now do not take the Government’s GCSEs and they do not bother with the Government’s league tables; they prefer the international GCSE, which the Government’s own watchdog has acknowledged is “more demanding”. We now have a system that has been compared by one headmaster to that of South Africa, where richer students can take more prestigious exams and poorer students are denied the same opportunities. Will the Minister ensure that opportunity is made more equal and insist that state schools can offer the more robust IGSCEs?
Jim Knight: I remind the hon. Gentleman that Ofqual has been clear that it is confident that standards have been maintained across the GCSEs. I also remind him that the study and taking of GCSEs in science in single subjects has doubled in recent years. I further remind him—and hope he celebrates the fact—that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe at science, thanks to the education they receive in our maintained schools. As far as the IGCSE is concerned, the jury is still out. As I recall, the maths IGSCE, which is very popular among certain members of the independent sector, does not have a non-calculator paper, whereas I think it is important that we assess mental arithmetic and give people that sort of rigour, free of the calculator."
The Conservatives finally seem to be developing a coherent message on education, which frankly has been a long time coming.