The main change is that it will no longer be possible to sit GCSEs, module by module, over a series of exam sittings. This is called “unitisation”. This will make a big difference to how subjects are taught in schools. At the moment, it s possible to master one part of a specification, take an examination in that, and then move on to the next part. As a relatively small amount of information (or skills) need to be learnt at any given moment, the exam performance is inevitably going to be better – at least for those students and schools who “play the system” effectively. And if a grade for a particular module proves to be unsatisfactory, there is the option to re-take it at the next exam sitting. The final result is almost bound to be impressive.
That situation put distance learners and home-schoolers at a big disadvantage. Most distance learners are only in a position to take the exam once, at the end, so they need to master the entire specification at a single moment in time. This has put them at a big disadvantage, competitively, with school-based students. The new system will be fairer to all the different types of candidates – it should be as close to a level playing field as we can get.
The government has also promised that marks will be awarded for good spelling, punctuation and other aspects of correct English. Most will agree that such skills are an important part of a rounded education and so this development is to be applauded.
The GCSE specifications are being reviewed by the examination boards in the light of these new guidelines and there is still time for some more fundamental changes to be made. Will a green light be given to the establishment of GCSE specifications which do not entail coursework and controlled assessment? Already there are some subjects like Maths, Psychology and Law, where no coursework is required and assessment if by final exam only – will that opportunity be extended to a range of other subjects, such as English, History and Geography where the GCSE specifications have to include coursework?
We would warmly welcome the establishment of such non-coursework GCSEs across the subject range because, again, this would eliminate one of the big disadvantages that distance learners and home schoolers currently suffer in certain subjects. Their coursework is marked by external examiners who (history has shown) do not mark coursework as generously as the teachers within schools who are assessing their own pupils.
The most ambitious schools have shown what they think of the current coursework arrangements by phasing in IGCSE exams as a replacement for GCSEs. IGCSEs (or Certificates as they are now called in the UK) are seen in certain cases as a fairer test of academic ability and potential. It is important that GCSEs should be seen as offering the same intellectual rigour. With the move away from modular assessment, there is the opportunity for other significant advances in the testing of our 16-year-olds.