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The grades crisis shows it was a mistake to scrap coursework

14 Oct 2020

The grades crisis shows it was a mistake to scrap coursework

By Mark Richards


Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but the recent GCSE and A-Level grading fiasco does seem to suggest that it was a mistake to scrap coursework. It was the decision of former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to remove coursework from all but a few subjects, where some, limited, NEA (Non-exam assessment) remains.  The modular approach was done away with and replaced by weighty terminal examinations at the end of GCSE and A-Level courses.


At the time there was much disquiet from teachers who were concerned that the move suited only the most academic of students. Now, the fact that exams had to be scrapped in the summer because of the coronavirus pandemic has seen many people comment about how things would have been different if coursework had not been ditched, including the Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, who has called Gove’s decision a ‘retrogressive step.’


Coursework grades would have been more reliable than mock results


There is a general consensus among teachers that students’ coursework marks would have been far more reliable and useful in trying to determine the awarding of grades than mock results. Mocks are approached very differently across schools. Many schools have introduced more than one round of mock exams into the school calendar. There is no uniformity about mocks – nor should there be – in schools across the country.


Mock results are eclectic at best. Yes, they can be a fairly useful indicator of where a student is at a particular moment in time – but that is all they are. They were never intended to be a substitute for the real thing. Coursework is/was ‘the real thing’ and therefore would have been a more robust way of predicting grades.


What are the plans for exams in 2021?


Many people within the profession are concerned that the government doesn’t have a good plan in place for next summer’s exams. The possibility remains that exams might not be able to go ahead next year, if more lockdowns are deemed necessary.


Schools would be wise to collect as much performance data throughout the year as evidence, should it be needed. But another big issue is the matter of what nature the exams will actually take.


Exam boards have made some subject-specific changes to assessment for the 2021 exam cohort. This is in recognition of the amount of teaching time that was lost earlier this year. This is all very sensible. The problem is that with the best will in the world, whatever decision is made about the content that is cut from a subject, it will never suit everybody. Indeed, it could very well end up disadvantaging many students. 


Of course, it’s only right that units are cut from the content of courses, but if the units cut are ones that schools spent significant time teaching last year, there is no benefit.


There is no magic solution or perfect answer to this dilemma, and teachers understand this. However, many will be wondering if Michael Gove’s legacy has made things even more difficult.




1- Are the new GCSE grades making it difficult for teachers to predict a student’s likely results?

2- New 9-1 GCSE Grading System

3- Is it time to introduce super courses for university degrees?

4- Are GCSEs no longer fit for purpose?


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