21 Aug '13

News GCSE exams 'mill' causing pupils distress warns Stephen Twigg

Student re-sits and multiple entries for same subject also harm school budgets, shadow education secretary tells Gove

Labour called on the department for education to "get a grip" on the practice of entering pupils into multiple exams for the same GCSE subjects, which in some cases has resulted in children being entered as many as seven times

The shadow education secretary argued that the cost and stress of putting children repeatedly through the exam mill needed to be addressed.

Stephen Twigg said the growth in multiple entries was costing schools and parents an estimated £11m this year in extra exam fees alone.

"Michael Gove needs to get a grip on the practice of multiple entry to GCSE exams. There has been a dramatic increase in GCSE maths multiple entries over the last two years, and [qualifications regulator] Ofqual are warning that the numbers are set to rise again this year." Twigg said.

"Entering pupils several times for their GCSE exam in the same subject can't be good for school budgets, standards or learning. We need an exam system that is fair to all and has the confidence of parents, pupils and teachers."

This year's GCSE results – to be released on Thursday morning – are expected to show a slight fall in achievement nationwide, with Ofqual warning that the rise in multiple entries could be a factor behind a dip in results.

Labour in particular highlighted data from Ofqual showing the rapid spread of multiple entries in maths, the worst-affected subject. About 41% of pupils were entered for multiple papers in 2012, with 26% entered for two papers and 11% entered for three. Three years ago, only 2% of pupils entered for three or more papers. According to Ofqual's figures, about 400 students entered for seven separate exam papers in maths.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said in response that abuse of multiple entries was one of the reasons why the government's reforms of GCSEs were badly needed.

"Schools should not be entering children for exams early, and then for re-sits, or other exams in the same subject. It is not good for pupils and should not happen," she said. "We are considering further action to discourage this practice."

The DfE pointed out that Ofsted now required its inspectors to look at "inappropriate early and multiple entry to GCSE exams during inspections," with the secretary of state, Michael Gove, raising the issue March 2012 when he called it "a damaging trend".

The DfE said it planned to change the way the performance tables are calculated, in order to give schools more credit for each extra grade a pupil achieves.

The practice of multiple entry was robustly defended by Sir John Rowling, a former head teacher and education expert who founded PiXL, a group of schools that uses collaboration to improve pupil performance at GCSE and A-level level.

Rowling said there were good reasons for multiple entries, as well as early entries by younger candidates.

"If you are trying to get an Olympic qualifying time, you would be in a foolish position if the athletics board said you're only allowed to pass it in Sheffield on 27 June. But people don't do that," Rowling said. "Some of these kids, their performances are just a little bit erratic. Let us try to work the best way we can to level that out."

Some of the multiple entry cases involved pupils taking differing versions of the exam, including the so-called "international GCSE" originally offered for the overseas market.

Entries in iGCSE papers has been rising for several years but there was a sudden upsurge this year in English in particular, caused in part by last year's marking fiasco and an unanticipated change in grade boundaries.

According to Adele Williams of the Cambridge International Examinations board – which has seen the biggest increase in English entries – schools say they like the syllabus and structure of the exam, and the fact that there is no controlled assessment required, with the grade in most cases relying on the end-of-course exam.

The surge in numbers has led to more state schools adopting the iGCSEs, with CIE saying that of the 1,300 schools that offered iGCSEs, 800 were state schools.

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