Changes to the Education System

ALL CHANGE –  Nicola Woolcock, Education Correspondent for The Times, charts the seismic shifts in the country’s education system.

When the Tories won power last year, a key pre-election pledge was that no major changes to the school curriculum or exams would be introduced midway through a school year. A year later, it gives scant comfort to teachers and parents struggling to keep up with various unexpected announcements, U-turns and the watering down or tweaking of other plans. The result is confusion.

New, tougher GCSEs started to be taught last September, with the A-G scoring system torn up and replaced with 9-1. But these numbers are not the exact equivalent of the predecessor grades and the reformed GCSEs will be taught only in English and maths for the first year.


changes1This has left some families bewildered and angry that their children appear to be guinea pigs in a very significant experiment. Teenagers taking their exams in summer 2017 will be left with some GCSEs graded with letters and others with numbers.

While universities will hopefully have a grasp of the system there are fears that some employers will not.

A 9 will be higher than the old A* and a 5 will be considered a good pass, set at the borderline of the current B/C grade. This is supposed to provide greater differentiation between the brightest pupils – an 8 will be a low A* and a 7 equivalent to an A grade.

A levels being taken in summer 2017 have also become more rigorous, with assessment  almost universally by exam, and the “decoupling” of AS and A levels. This means AS levels become a stand-alone qualification, rather than teenagers being able to convert them into A levels. However, as with GCSEs, the harder A levels, with updated content, will be introduced in batches over a three year period, starting from last autumn.

New courses were introduced last September in biology, chemistry, economics, English, history and physics, among others. Geography, modern foreign languages, ancient languages, music, PE and drama will be replaced this autumn, and other subjects including maths will be relaunched in September 2017.

Primary schools have not been immune from turmoil: more difficult SATs tests have been introduced for six- and 11-year-olds which means that children in their first years of school have to learn arcane terminology and syntax such as the meaning of digraphs, trigraphs, and grapheme-phoneme correspondences, and how to apply these in a sentence.

By 11 they can expect to be tested on ambiguity, ellipses, modal verbs, relative clauses and expanded noun phrases within their writing.

The maths curriculum has also become more rigorous. This has had a domino effect on the whole primary curriculum, with children from reception upwards having to master more at an earlier age, so they are primed for the next academic year. Some parents were so enraged by the changes they pulled their children out of school for a strike in May, in protest at the impact of tests on their children’s education and mental health.

This coincided with another source of confusion – the rights of parents to take  their children on term-time holidays. Three years ago Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, took a hard-line approach to children missing school and said head teachers would no longer have discretion to grant up to ten days of leave a year. Fines of í120 per couple were introduced, with the risk of prosecution for those who did not pay. But the High Court recently ruled in favour of a parent who challenged the legislation, leaving education ministers furious and head teachers unsure of their powers. The government insists that heads should still penalise parents of children who miss school, unless there are exceptional circumstances, but until there is legal clarification it provides another source of frustration and uncertainty for schools and families.

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