Why the new GCSE reforms are making teachers so angry

“We are being forced to run a race where the route keeps changing after having run through it. The problem is, we have to turn around and run the new route while still finishing in the same time.”

As September 2016 approaches, many teachers are gearing up for the big shift. Teachers often complain about constant tinkering but the new GCSEs are a fundamental overhaul of the KS4 curriculum – new broader and deeper specifications accompanied by a new grading system, a new threshold for what counts as a ‘good’ pass and a range of new performance measures.

There are many meta-level discussions about these reforms that are firmly rooted in ideology and result in futile arguments that do not achieve anything. However, what is not getting enough attention is the practical problem that the reforms are causing for a range of subjects. I will speak about Religious Studies as a teacher of that discipline.

T minus 1

As I’ve said, this upcoming September sees the official first-teaching of the brand new Religious Studies GCSE. The reality, however, is that many schools are already teaching this GCSE. Although Key Stage 4 is theoretically designed as a two-year process (Year 9 options, Years 10 and 11 studying), many schools have extended it to a three-year process in order to allow more teaching time for these critical qualifications. In my school, Religious Studies is only afforded an hour of teaching time a week (although Year 11 students have two hours) and as such, we start teaching in Year 9. This is the only way we can give the course content sufficient room to have taught it effectively.

However, with the current state of affairs this is causing a huge problem: none of the Religious Studies GCSE specifications are accredited by Ofqual yet. Since KS4 is officially a two-year process, it is not seen as an issue at the official level. However, we teach over three years and as such, we have been teaching the Year 9s based on a draft specification since last September.

Why is this a problem?

  • As of September we could not guarantee that the course content originally proposed by our exam board would remain constant in the final specification
  • We have no official textbooks to help guide us in identifying specific knowledge the students need. Specifications often include vague or impenetrable phrasing which is clarified greatly by authorised textbooks but as these do not exist we have been designing lessons with significant gaps in our knowledge of what students are expected to know.
  • We have no finalised exam papers to use in assessing students. This has meant that we cannot teach students what they are required to do in various exam questions (much as this is teaching to the test, if the test is the measure of teaching – that is more a criticism of the broader system than it is of a teaching method).
  • We cannot tell students what level they are working at. Given that we cannot assess students, we cannot tell them what level they are working at; nor can we tell their parents. We simply have no idea.

This has meant that our lessons have been planned in line with the original draft. We have tentatively introduced the assessment structure for the lower-level hoping questions in the hope that this remain the same. Much as this is not ideal, we were hopeful that the changes in the final version would not be significant.

Version 2

Unfortunately, as of late January, version 2 has been published and there have been significant changes to the course content. Let’s look at the course content proposed in the original and version 2:

Screenshot 2016-02-07 18.15.02 IMG_4821

On the left is Version 1 and on the right is Version 2.

1.1 from the original has been removed completely (a curious change given that it is fundamental to other aspects of the course). This is presumably because it is insufficiently theological. We taught this, but we’ll have to tell students to ignore it.

Original 1.2/New 1.1 – students no longer need to know how the Holy Trinity is shown in the Bible; only the Nicene Creed. This is a somewhat bizarre change. Nor do they need to know why its important. We spent a long time covering Biblical representation of the Trinity and significantly less time on the Nicene Creed, but we’ll just have to leave it for now.

Original 1.3/New 1.3, 1.4, 1.5 – clearly this is a significant change. By squeezing out the lessons on the nature of God and science, Edexcel have created room for a series of very specific lessons about Jesus. This again is presumably to better comply with Ofqual’s requirement that new GCSEs include more direct religious content (note how the original section was called ‘Belief in God’ but has been renamed ‘Christian Beliefs’). Edexcel’s original submission was notably creative in its attempt to minimise theological content, and clearly this has to some extent backfired.

Original 1.4/New 1.2 – The biblical creation section has been amended to no longer require any knowledge of the relation between creator and mankind nor the role of stewardship (again, content we had taught students). A greater emphasis is placed on the role of the word and spirit and a new clause requires knowledge of ‘the importance of creation for Christians today’ – it is unclear what exactly this means (unless it is a reworded requirement for knowledge of stewardship, although this topic has been moved to another section of the specification).

Original 1.5, 1.6, 1.7 – for some bizarre reason these have been removed to a completely different section of the course (Matters of Life and Death – see below). There is no logic to separating this from Christian teachings about creation other than to comply with Ofqual’s new regulations (i.e. it makes room for the Jesus lessons). Unfortunately, they have also been changed to include specific reference to Georges Lemaire (by lucky chance we included him in our lesson, though only briefly) and ‘the value of the universe in Christian teaching; and responses to the possible view that the universe can be used as a commodity’ (another impenetrable phrase). The specification also no longer requires students to study evolution as a topic itself, but only Christian responses to it (it is unclear how this is to be achieved, although in a sense we’re lucky to have already taught evolution so that the students know what they are talking about).

Original 1.8/New 1.7 and 1.8 – evil and suffering has clearly expanded to include more depth and evaluation. Luckily we hadn’t taught this yet, and the changes are relatively inconsequential.

Another new section has been added – 1.6 Eschatology. Given that I have mentioned a section called ‘Matters of Life and Death’ already, it might seem surprising that this is not in that section. The bizarre thing is that it is in that section. Not only have Christian beliefs on life after death been placed into this first section, they are also in Section 4 (see 4.5 and to a lesser extent 4.6). Granted the focus is different, but this has still resulted in a very strange state of affairs:

Screenshot 2016-02-07 18.26.49

What this means for our teaching

In September, we started teaching an introduction scheme of work while we planned lessons for the formal course. We then started teaching Version 1. As of the end of January we had almost finished teaching the content for Section 1, only to find it has been significantly amended. We are now having to plan additional lessons to cover all of the additional content students need to know. This means we are already running significantly behind where we should be (perhaps about six weeks – a half-term).

However, without an approved specification or exam material, we still cannot reliably assess students. Nor can we guarantee that this course content will be approved.

Some could argue that we should offset teaching the new qualification until September 2016. Much as this would avoid the problems we currently face, it would create another massive problem. As I said at the beginning, we do not have the teaching time to cover this content in two years. Either way we do the students a significant injustice – we have decided that this is the lesser of two evils.

What does this tell us about the reforms?

Let’s leave aside any argument about the nature of the reforms themselves (i.e. whether they should have happened). This introduction of the new GCSE in Religious Studies is chaotic. The same has happened or is still happening in many other subjects. Slowly, new specifications are being approved but many still remain in limbo. This has resulted in a cohort of Year 9 students for whom a significant portion of their GCSE study is being undermined through no fault of their own (even assuming Ofqual manages to adequately maintain comparable outcomes as they promise to). Centres will simply not have adequately prepared students – we are being forced to run a race where the route keeps changing after having run through it. The problem is, we have to turn around and run the new route while still finishing in the same time.

This is only one specific problem these new courses are causing – others include the introduction of new A Levels for students who have studied the old GCSEs, or the phasing in of new qualifications so that students over the next few years will have a mix of grades (9-1 and A*-G).

What should have happened?

Assuming that the reforms were going to happen, they should have been introduced gradually through the system. Specifications should be approved at least an academic year before teaching – this allows high quality textbooks to be written, time for teachers to plan for them and time for schools to consider any timetabling/options adjustments. They should be introduced at the same time to create consistency, and they should be introduced to follow a cohort through the system so that the changes accrue and prevent any large-scale jumps for candidates who have to suddenly do new A Level qualifications which require knowledge they have not been taught on the old GCSEs.

No matter how ardent a defender you are of the qualification reform, it seems to be inconceivable that schools being forced to teach qualifications pre-accreditation is an acceptable state of affairs.

Of course, this post is futile – the lessons have been taught, the specifications will eventually be approved and the changes are too late to reverse. But it’s important that we reflect on the day-to-day impact of these reforms above the meta-arguments about their validity in principle.