With A Level results out tomorrow, now is a timely opportunity to take stock of Michael Gove’s 2014 reforms and look at the extent to which they have begun to affect the pupils that have taken their exams under the new system.
This year’s results will be interesting for two reasons. Firstly, they will serve as a useful barometer test for current Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, in terms of how he might react should grades either inflate or deflate, serving to either undermine or support Gove’s reforms respectively. Secondly, the results will provide additional insights into the gender trends that will undoubtedly continue to emerge as a result of the reforms.
Principally, Gove’s reforms involved ‘decoupling’ the AS level from the A Level. This effectively means the AS Level that students chose to take in their first year of sixth form or college no longer counts towards their actual A Levels. The reforms also saw a reduction in coursework, the scrapping of modular testing and the introduction of linear assessment, with one final exam at the end of the two-year period.
Hinds has publicly supported Gove’s reforms, stating they would “help to prepare pupils for the real world” and address grade inflation. However, he has publicly committed, as part of his first act as Education Secretary, not to introduce new tests or exams, changes to the national curriculum or further reforms to GCSEs and A levels for at least the next four years. This was an obvious attempt at removing himself from Gove’s school of thought in an effort to regain equilibrium in the sector. In short, Gove’s view was that exam grades were too generous. His idea of “excellence” was that of academic ability alone, but this was inherently rooted in the schooling system of the 1950s and to many in the sector, ironically, wouldn’t prepare students for the “real world” at all.
Although most of the new A Levels have now been rolled out, with the first few having been introduced last year, whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s results, the full impact of Gove’s reforms won’t be felt for another four years when all new A Levels have been implemented. Initial gender trends, however, are interesting and give us a sense of what might Gove’s reforms might bring for the teenagers of today.
For example, last year boys across the UK in all subjects outperformed girls in achieving the top grades. They gained 26.6 per cent A and A*, compared with 26.1 per cent for girls. In 2016, however, before the new A Levels had been rolled out, 25.7 per cent of boys were awarded A and A*s. This was 0.3 percentage points below that of girls.
More generally, in England, boys have been found to cope much better with the introduction of the new, linear A levels. Although 24.3 per cent of both genders were awarded either A or A* last year, this actually marked a significant decline for girls. The proportion of girls gaining A and above fell by 1.1 percentage points compared to 2016, while the boys’ results held up far better, falling just 0.2 percentage points.
Arguably, with the scrapping of coursework and reliance on final exams, the new A levels seem to favour boys rather than girls. It’s been argued that girls better apply themselves to coursework compared to boys, who prefer to focus their efforts on a more last minute ‘cramming’ period. This is obviously a generalisation, but the changes in results so far suggest there is some merit to this hypothesis.
Tomorrow Ofqual, the independent examination regulator, will be seeking to protect thousands of pupils from being penalised by the tougher qualifications, meaning pass marks could fall significantly this year. Ofqual’s various statistical methods aim to prevent significant grade inflation or deflation if the exams are much easier or harder compared with the previous year.
Ofqual has noted from its own research that students’ performance always dips in the first years of a new qualification, mainly due to the fact that teachers are less familiar with the new specifications and there are fewer support materials and past papers for students to use. Their statistical methodology compensates for that dip, so in theory tomorrow’s cohort won’t be unfairly disadvantaged by being some of the first to sit these new qualifications.
As was made explicitly clear by Gove during his time as Education Secretary, both he and David Cameron had no power over the conduct of exams. This has always lain in the hands of Ofqual, the independent and unelected regulator that Gove always insisted it would be inappropriate to “meddle” with given its independence.
However, depending on tomorrow’s results, it will be interesting to see if Hinds now takes the opposite opinion, deeming it appropriate to “meddle” with an independent regulator should Ofqual continue to lower its grade thresholds – undermining the reason Gove introduced the reforms in the first place.