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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove deserves good marks for wanting to end GCSE tiering
A GCSE marker explains the effects of tiering – under which about half of candidates are only permitted to get a C grade – and welcomes moves to end it
Michael Gove's proposed GCSE reforms have met with a mixed response from parents, teachers and examiners. Criticism has tended to focus on the move to "linear assessment", which places all exams at the end of a two-year period, or the removal of modular resits. But one change seems to have flown under the radar: a radical cut-back in "tiering".
Under the present system, schools divide candidates into two distinctgroups, foundation and higher, based on ability. The split is roughly equal, with a slightly greater number in the higher category. Those taking foundation papers can attain grades G to C and no higher, while the more demanding higher papers are marked from E to A*. This is the case in every core subject except history and has remained largely unchanged since the first GCSE exams more than 25 years ago. Gove's plans would strip English and geography of their tiered status, making all students sit the same paper.
As an English literature GCSE marker this summer, I saw at first hand the problems with tiering. The most troubling issue is the grade cap, which sets a hard and fast limit on the number of marks foundation candidates can receive. Regardless of how intelligent and well thought-out a student's response, they cannot be awarded more than a C. In the foundation scripts assigned to me, I was shocked by the number of "full marks" answers that clearly deserved a B, sometimes even an A. I have heard many other markers share this concern.
It is tempting to blame this "ceiling effect" on teachers. In principle, they are responsible for dividing the students into two groups, a determination that is often made early on in the GCSE cycle and reinforced through streaming. But there is often pressure from above, not only from school leadership, but also from the A*–C league table system, which sets teachers scrambling for easy Cs. Exam boards acknowledge the problem: a recent report from Cambridge Assessment admits that the ceiling effect "may affect a more significant number of candidates than previously thought".
I spoke to a friend who teaches at a large Yorkshire secondary school currently in special measures. She describes how a mixed group of students with predicted grades in English ranging from B to E have all been entered early for a foundation paper in order to secure a C grade before Gove's reforms come into effect. They will be allowed to sit the higher paper next year to try to bump up their grades, but this booster option isn't always available. She told me of another teacher whose students, after taking the foundation paper, were specifically prevented from attempting the higher one, instead being rushed through a more basic IGCSE qualification in six weeks to "get another GCSE in the bag".
If there are problems with schools gaming the system to maximise the number of C grades achieved, there are also serious issues with the papers themselves. Unlike maths or the sciences, where material differs significantly between tiers, the actual content of many foundation and higher papers in English literature is practically identical: a shared set of poems and prose extracts, either pre-published or unseen. The crucial distinction is in how candidates are prompted to respond.
In my set of papers, more able students were asked to engage with specific features of an author's language – "How does Forster make X so effectively Y?" – while foundation candidates were steered towards a more personal response: "What do you find particularly Y about X?" This might seem a reasonable attempt to accommodate a range of abilities, but then you notice that "personal response" is a key phrase used to distinguish less worthy scripts in the marking scheme. In this case, at least, foundation papers seemactively to create the sorts of answers they are supposed to cater for. It's impossible to know how every foundation candidate would respond if presented with the higher paper, but the number of students who ignore the often patronising prompts and end up with a notional "more than full marks" shows there is a pool of lost potential.
I'm far from being an uncritical supporter of Gove – his policies often seem designed to appeal to a limited set of middle-class, Conservative-voting parents. But cutting back on tiering is one proposal with which I can agree.
On these pages recently Danny Dorling criticised the ideology behind many of Gove's national curriculum changes, suggesting that policies are based on a "nasty little theory" that separates "quality" people from those deemed less worthy of support. A reduction in tiering may at least go some way towards breaking down this distinction.
The writer's name has been changed