In the summer of 2017 school children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be the first cohort to sit the new style GCSE examinations in Maths and English. In 2013 the Education Secretary Michael Gove unveiled these changes declaring “by making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.”
That’s what I wanted for my daughter sitting her maths GCSE, I wanted her to win the global race. She wants to work with small children.
All Education Secretaries follow the mantra of “raising standards and attainment”, well of course, it sounds good politically and who would want to lower standards and attainment? So how is this raising of standards and attainment going to be achieved? Something quick, something cheap, make sure its simple to implement and plays well to voters, got it; Change the exams!
In my time as a secondary maths teacher I have witnessed the change from linear exams, where all exams are sat at the end of the academic year, to modular examinations, where exams were broken down throughout the year, back to linear exams and now the introduction of a new GCSE with a new format and new content.
I remember the howls of discontent in a room full of maths teachers as the new syllabus was discussed and just what would be asked of pupils was revealed. I remember keeping quiet, partly because you’ll find on many teacher courses there are people who love the sound of their own voice, but mostly because I believed changing the exams, making the course more challenging and requiring pupils to demonstrate genuine competency in mathematics isn’t unreasonable.
The mathematics exams to be sat in the summer of 2017 are more challenging, they do require more thought and problem solving, and crucially they remove the ability of teachers to teach to the test.
This is the problem schools currently face, how to effectively prepare their pupils to sit these exams?
lessons that allow pupils to develop their understanding of topics,
make mistakes and learn from them,
practice problems that need the integration of different mathematical
skills to solve,
time to develop the confidence needed to sit down in a pressure filled
environment and perform to their best ability.
Problem: not enough time.
The GCSE is meant to be a 2-year course, beginning in Year 10. This isn’t the case and even prior to the changes made for 2017, schools would begin teaching the GCSE curriculum in the Easter of Year 9 to get as much preparation time as possible and still some teachers would struggle to cover the syllabus.
With more content to cover in an already tight time frame that some would claim is insufficient, teachers have had to rely on the most expedite ways to cover the syllabus, demonstrating mathematical techniques and have pupils practice them by rote, known as the “chalk and talk” method of pedagogy.
There is much debate about rote learning, for an article for another time, but what I will say is that I have witnessed, in a school in a deprived area rated as Good by OFSTED, that it was effective in preparing their students for the now defunct GCSE exams.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your viewpoint, this will no longer be possible.
To give an example, on previous GCSE mathematics exams a question may ask how to divide a number in a given ratio, this would be given some context such as Person A and B are given some money, they decide to share it in this ratio, how much does each person get and so the skill of dividing in a given ratio is assessed.
And now; Jake and Kim share some money in the ratio 1: 3 Kim gets £90 more than Jake. How much does Kim get?
This question requires more thought and understanding rather than greater mathematical skill. Regurgitating a method drilled in to pupils’ heads from repetitions of the same style question will no longer be effective.
Questions can change, understanding and comprehension are required.
With teachers being asked to cover both extra content and content that is at a higher level, to fulfil increasing bureaucratic obligations set by schools, something has to give and more and more parents are realising that their child is not getting the provision and the support required to prepare them for these new examinations.
Weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter, testing people doesn’t raise attainment, unfortunately schools and teachers have been given the mandate, just not the means.