GCSE English exams: Letter gave assurances on changes

The results have left pupils, parents and teachers distraught, a union claims

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Schools were assured 16 months ago by the Welsh government that pupils would not be disadvantaged by new English language GCSEs, BBC Wales has learned.

There was shock and anger on 6 March at unexpected poor grades awarded to pupils who sat the new exam in January.

And head teachers have written to the education minister saying the test results have eroded confidence in the examinations system.

A "rapid review" is being conducted by the Welsh government into the matter.

Parents and teachers reacted furiously when pupils who had taken the new exam were awarded "unexpectedly low" results for GCSE English language exams sat earlier this year.

Letter from Chris Tweedale The letter sent to schools in October 2012 gave assurances over the new exams

The unit (or module) was part of the first Wales-only GCSE examinations, ordered after a split between Northern Ireland, England and Wales in 2012.

Analysis

When pupils started getting their results last week it was clear all was not well.

Unions representing head teachers said they got a torrent of emails from their members unable to understand why the results were so much lower than expected.

There is always some disparity between expected grades and reality but the difference between grades expected and what pupils got clearly came as a surprise.

Teachers and pupils were in a state of shock, unable to fathom what had gone wrong.

The finger of blame was pointed at the exam board, the WJEC.

Heads said they were not told clearly enough or early enough about changes to how papers were marked.

The WJEC has launched an internal investigation but points out there was a suite of information, papers and courses available to teachers to get to grips with the new marking guidelines.

The education minister does not believe the problem is widespread.

Government figures show around 16% of schools were down more than a grade on average.

A further 23% of schools were down between half a grade and a grade.

Of the 17 schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf that put pupils forward for tests in January, the average drop in pupils gaining grade C or above was 25%.

The Welsh government has placed a greater emphasis on rigour and there is now an expectation that more pupils will be disappointed in future so situations like this may become less unusual.

It followed a row over GCSE English exam results that year which led to thousands of papers being re-graded.

Teaching unions have said teachers from 100 schools around Wales have expressed anger at results from the new exams and head teachers in Rhondda Cynon Taf council wrote to the education minister saying the test results have eroded confidence in the examinations system.

On Thursday, BBC Wales was shown a copy of another letter sent in October 2012 by the then director of the Welsh government's schools department Chris Tweedale assuring that pupils would not be disadvantaged by the new exams.

He was addressing concerns by head teachers and English teachers about the introduction of new specifications for the English language GCSE exam.

The letter states: "I acknowledge that the steps that have been taken with regard to the introduction of the new qualification are unusual and, to a degree, unsettling.

"Ordinarily, we would always try to ensure that new or revised qualification specifications are available to schools well before the start of the first academic year, but these are exceptional circumstances.

"The Welsh government will be closely monitoring the introduction, delivery and awarding of this new qualification to ensure that learners are not unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged by its introduction."

Following the outcry of the grades awarded, exam officials have stressed that tougher requirements on accuracy in the new exam, and a much higher number of students taking the papers, could explain lower grades.

But Education Minister Huw Lewis has said: "I have ordered a rapid review of GCSE English language unit results which will focus specifically on learners and will be based on evidence.

"The review will be swift and thorough. It will identify factors underlying the results and put in place appropriate actions to support schools as they prepare learners for the June assessments."

A Welsh government spokesperson added: "We are focusing on hard evidence. The learner is our primary concern and we will put in place all of the support needed to ensure that no pupil is disadvantaged through no fault of their own."

Conservative AM Angela Burns, Shadow Minister for Education, said: "These results make a mockery of the Welsh government's promises 16 months ago that pupils would not be disadvantaged."

She added: "Labour ministers meddling in the examination system has damaged confidence in the rigour of Welsh qualifications and undoubtedly knocked the morale of teachers and students who have important exams looming this summer."

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