GCSE proposals could disadvantage vulnerable pupils, fear experts

By Derren Hayes

| 12 June 2013

Children's charities, education professionals and disability campaigners have raised fears that the government's proposed reforms to GCSEs in England could increase the likelihood of disadvantaged young people failing in school.

Government reforms of GCSEs will see more emphasis put on final exams. Image: Lucie Carlier

Children with special educational needs, who don’t live in a supportive home environment and have long-term health conditions are just some of the groups that could be disadvantaged by the introduction of tougher, exam-oriented GCSEs by autumn 2015.

Unveiling the plans in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Education Secretary Michael Gove said the reforms would raise standards for the most able pupils and increase opportunities for young people from poorer backgrounds to get a good education.

But Ian Toone, senior professional officer (education) for education union Voice, said the move away from coursework would disadvantage many young people.

“Three-hour exams test academically able pupils’ ability to recall and present information under test conditions, but for very many young people, including those with special needs, coursework and teacher assessment are a better measure of their knowledge and abilities,” he added.

Lorraine Peterson, chief executive of learning disability charity Nasen, said the proposed system would be “really challenging or just inappropriate” for children with a learning disability. 

She said: “Around 20 per cent of the school population is currently identified as having a special educational need. The government thinks that all children can achieve these [standards] with better teaching and syllabus, but they don’t understand that there is a group of the population who can’t cognitively achieve them.”

Hilary Emery, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said the plans were designed to ensure more young people fail, and called on the government to rethink them. 

She added: “Young people who move home or school will be at greater disadvantage, such as looked-after children, young people in custody, young people accessing health treatment and those living in short-term accommodation.”

Under the new system, pupils would no longer receive 25 per cent of their marks on coursework – except for science – but instead be graded only on a final exam following two years of study.  Pass marks will be pushed higher, with pupils graded from eight (highest) to one (lowest) instead of A* to G.

The new system would initially cover the nine core GCSE subjects, with the first cohort of pupils taking exams in summer 2017. They will be consulted on for three months. Wales and Northern Ireland have no plans to introduce them.

The plans represent a second attempt by Gove to reform secondary school qualifications. Earlier this year, he scrapped proposals for Baccalaureate certificates to replace GCSEs following concerns raised by education professionals.

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