Reforms to GCSE and A level examinations in England and Wales, the biggest shake-up in 30 years, are now well under way. GCSE students will sit the first exams of the new system next summer in English Language, English Literature and Mathematics.
As a GCSE Chief Examiner, responsible for writing exam papers and mark schemes, I have been heavily involved in the development of new GCSE specifications. Up until 12 months ago, I was also a full-time teacher – an Assistant Headteacher and a Head of English. So, I have seen the new GCSE reform from ‘both sides’, so to speak. This period of reform has been challenging for exam boards and schools alike – but the biggest challenge the new GCSEs present is for those who are most important in all of this – young people, the students who will actually sit these exams.
Here are some tips to help you support and guide your child through the challenges that lie ahead.
The New GCSEs – The Basics
The first phase of changes began in September 2015 when teaching for the new GCSE began for English Language, English Literature and Mathematics. These are the subjects that will first be tested in June 2017.
The second phase began in September 2016. Subjects such as History, Geography, Science and Modern Foreign Languages. Students will sit exams in these subjects for the first time in the summer of 2018.
The third and final phase, including subjects such as Media Studies, Business and Design & Technology will begin first teaching in September 2017, with the first exams being in June 2019.
New Grading system
One of the most obvious changes to the new GCSEs is the different grading system. Instead of a scale A*-G, grades will be now be numerical (9-1).
In broad terms grades will work as follows: 3, 2 and 1 will be equivalent to D, E, F and G.
6, 5 and 4 will be the equivalent of a B and C. 4 is being seen as a ‘low C’. Grades 4, 5 and 6 are being labelled as ‘good GCSE passes’.
Grades 7, 8, 9 are the equivalent of A and A*. OFQUAL, the exam regulator, has announced that the top 20% of all students that achieve a 7, 8, .or 9 in a subject will be awarded the top grade of a ‘9’. The number of students awarded a 7, 8 or 9 will be the broadly the same as the number who were previously awarded an A or A*.
No coursework/early entry
Although a practical element or coursework remains in some subjects, for most it has been removed and subjects are now ‘100% exam’. This is significant. Take a current Year 11 student who is studying GCSE Media Studies. Next summer, their final exam will be worth 40% of their overall final mark. For English Language, however, it will be 100%.
Students starting Year 10 next September will not know any different, of course. But for students currently in Year 10 or 11, they are caught up in a potentially confusing mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’ GCSEs. Parents should check that their children fully understand the demands of each exam component, so that they can factor in an appropriate amount of preparation and revision for each.
Students also now only get one go at exams – at the end of a two year course.
Closed Book Exams
Exams are now ‘closed book’ – meaning that students cannot take copies of any texts they have studied into the exam with them. This obviously has implications for the amount of revision students will need to do.
Number of exams
All the new GCSEs are required to have TWO final exams. This will become more of an issue in the years to come when all subjects have ‘rolled out’. But even next summer, students will find themselves having to sit a greater number of exams. It is going to be more important than ever that students start revising early and that they devise a carefully planned revision timetable.
Exam technique is everything!
For the new GCSEs, the benefits of private tuition are even more obvious. Now that everything rests on performance in an exam, perfecting exam technique is vital. One-to-one tuition is a superb way of achieving this. Firstly, in helping students to grasp key ideas and concepts; and secondly, in guiding students on how to structure an exam response. All new GCSEs require more extended, essay-style responses, for example.
There is absolutely no point in trying to gloss over the fact that the new GCSEs are a considerable step-up from what has gone before. But to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Knowing what you now know will enable you to guide and support your child through the new GCSEs.