It is reported that the DfE has decided not to allow international GCSEs to be allowed to be used in league tables.
This is not a surprise though I think it is bad policy. I will explain some background, my involvement in discussions about this before I left in January 2014, and why I think it is a mistake.
None of the boards’ iGCSEs counted in league tables pre-2010. We thought this was a mistake. Some of the best private schools used the Cambridge International iGCSE. Some great state schools told us in Opposition that they wanted to do the same. It seemed reasonable to have more diversity in the system and let state schools do what private schools were doing particularly given the huge problems with standard GCSEs and the difficulty with reforming them.
During 2013, as standard GCSEs were being reformed, the issue arose of what to do about iGCSEs.
The issue was complicated by differences among the boards. I have never heard anyone claim that the Cambridge International iGCSE is easier than the standard GCSE. However, there were persistent arguments that other boards’ iGCSEs were not as hard as GCSEs and private schools and others were being conned.
There was a piece of research circulating (from people very well known in the education world who are taken very seriously) that plotted the Cambridge iGCSE against the standard GCSE and another board’s iGCSE, with the former harder than GCSEs and the latter easier than GCSEs. The research was not published because the people concerned were frightened of legal action (itself a telling detail about the epidemic dishonesty in the English debate on exams and standards, a dishonesty that, I think, most who discuss education policy greatly underestimate).
In 2013, officials and Ofqual argued that the reformed GCSEs starting from 2015 should completely replace iGCSEs which should not be allowed in the league tables. MG and I were not keen on this idea. I spoke to people about their concerns. I suggested the following path through (the below is not a quote from my memo, which I will dig out, but includes the main ideas)…
The DfE should announce that anybody who wants their exams, including iGCSEs, to be included in league tables will have to produce clear overwhelming and independent evidence that they are significantly more challenging than standard GCSEs. If they produce such evidence, we will include them; if not, not. This means that we avoid banning things that are obviously better than GCSEs but we also cull those exam boards who are abusing the system. We will also learn from the evidence presented and that exercise will be a useful thing – even if none of the boards submit anything we will learn something valuable. We’re trying to move all of these debates towards people discussing evidence rather than hunches and this is a very good candidate for this approach.
The responses boiled down to two things.
1) Nobody had an argument against the idea as policy.
2) Nobody wanted to do it. The bureaucratic arguments amounted to: a) ‘It’s messy.’ b) ‘We’ll get sued by the exam boards who are always cheating things and will hire fancy lawyers.’ c) ‘Ofqual doesn’t want to.’ Why? ‘It’s messy.’ d) Unstated but hanging over the discussion – ‘it’s a lot of hard work on a marginal issue and nobody is going to attack us for being elitist if we ban them’.
Given this response, MG and spads thought we should try it.
Some time in autumn 2013, I can’t remember when, I was tipped off that ‘David Laws hates your idea, he just wants to ban them, there’s a meeting shortly’. I went to the meeting. I was not optimistic and assumed I would have to torpedo him with ‘SoS agrees with me’, given the state of relationships by then given Clegg’s appalling behaviour. My assumption was wrong.
The issues were explained. I gave him my argument. He had not heard it. I said that the bureaucratic arguments were not relevant – particularly absurd fears about legal challenges (an argument deployed daily) – and the best thing educationally was to give it a whirl regardless of some complexity and irrelevant media noise. Laws listened and asked questions. He was reasonable. He asked officials if anybody had a policy argument against the idea. Nobody did, the main argument was ‘Ofqual really wants us to ban them’. It was also clear though that the issue was not closed and officials knew I was soon leaving.
It is no surprise to see the news today. The bureaucracy now has its clarity, but is it a good decision? Were Nicky Morgan / her spads given an alternative (it would not surprise me if the option was never presented to them)? What will the DfE say when a state school says ‘Eton does the Cambridge iGCSE in X because they think it’s better – why can’t we offer our pupils the same thing, as you promised before the 2010 election?’? Can anybody see a downside to trying the other path, given one could always have reverted to banning everything if it proved unworkable?
It is of course possible that detailed work was done after I left and this decision was taken for reasons that are not public but are sound. If so, I am sure the new evidence-based DfE will make the technical arguments public.
Please leave comments, corrections etc.
UPDATE 1. This story strengthens my view that one of the most important things for the improvement of education in English state schools is the development of new exams that are outside the regulatory structure of the DfE and Ofqual – exams that are aimed purely at encouraging deep skills in mathematical modelling, extended writing and so on. It is not a coincidence that perhaps the most challenging exam taken in English schools – maths STEP – a) is not created by the domestic exam boards (Cambridge Assessment, not OCR), b) has zero input from DfE, c) is not regulated by Ofqual, d) has a clear educational purpose of encouraging deep skills needed for a serious undergraduate degree, and e) the people who use it as a tool would be horrified at the idea of the DfE, Ofqual, or ‘education policy people’ proposing Whitehall should have anything to do with it. I will blog soon on how I think a new ‘post-GCSE & A Level’ system could evolve.
UPDATE 2. As some emails winging from the DfE say, not all officials wanted the ban and some agreed with the course suggested above. True. (I tend to assume readers of this blog will assume the DfE is not monolithic.) But it was also clear which way Whitehall’s gravity was pulling.
UPDATE 3. An email arrives from inside the DfE – a senior official who was involved in these decisions… He points to this research on iGCSEs. The C/D borderline figures are the most interesting.
I want to stress – I am not saying that international GCSEs are ‘the answer’ to the problems with the exam system. I do not think they are. I think the problems are much more fundamental and require much deeper changes. My point is that it would have been much better policy to ask the boards for hard evidence about the exams in order that the policy world can examine the issues on the basis of data rather than hunches and just ‘officials say they’re easier’ / ‘well why does Eton do them then?’ etc, which is the level of debate over the past decade. If the DfE made the decision on the basis largely of the evidence in the link above, then it should explain this publicly so people can judge whether their thought process was reasonable, otherwise inevitably many will assume the decision was made for bureaucratic – not educational – reasons.