GCSE English plan leaves speaking test out of final grade

By Judith Burns
BBC News education reporter

Exam room
Image caption,
Under the proposals written exams will make up 60% of the overall GCSE grade

The speaking and listening element of GCSE English will no longer form part of the overall grade, under proposals from England's exams regulator Ofqual.

The move follows concerns that over-generous marking of speaking and listening tests by teachers contributed to last year's GCSE English debacle.

Thousands of students failed to achieve the grades they expected after Ofqual raised the grade boundaries.

A group representing English teachers said the plan was a "retrograde step".

Joe Walsh, of the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE), said: "What is proposed is essentially a downgrading of the importance of speaking and listening skills in the English GCSE."

Under the proposals the marks from the speaking and listening tests will be still be recorded on the GCSE certificate but will be separate from the main mark.

Ofqual says the changes "do not imply any downgrading of speaking and listening skills," and they should not mean teachers having to alter what they teach.

The changes are planned from summer 2014, affecting students currently in the first year of their course.

'Optimistic' marking

Launching a consultation on the plan Ofqual says the changes should help protect against a repeat of last year's problems.

In its November report into the GCSE English controversy the exam watchdog said it raised grade boundaries in June to compensate for inaccurate marking of speaking and listening tests by teachers.

The tests are administered and marked in schools by teachers.

At the time Ofqual's chief regulator Glenys Stacey said that it was understandable that teachers were too generous with their marking because of the pressure on schools to achieve good grades.

The consultation document says: "We do not believe that the current arrangements for speaking and listening can produce fair outcomes for students overall...

"There are no practical arrangements that we consider we can make to ensure assessment of speaking and listening is sufficiently resilient."

The changes will mean more emphasis on the written part of the exam as opposed to controlled assessments.

Under the current arrangements the speaking and listening controlled assessment makes up 20% of the overall grade, with 40% on the reading and writing controlled assessment and 40% on the written exams.

The proposals will reweight the remaining components and would see written exams counting for 60% of the marks.

Ofqual says that the proposed change would make the exams harder for students who perform better in speaking and listening than in written exams.

It anticipates an overall drop in the number of students achieving good grades if the changes go ahead. For these reasons they say grade boundaries "would have to be set one or two marks lower than would otherwise be the case".

Mr Walsh said to "move the goalposts" in this way halfway through the GCSE English course seemed totally unfair.

"Simply to say that it will be 'certificated separately' is not good enough.

"Everybody knows that it is the overall English grade that will matter most to the students, to their parents, to the teachers and to the schools."

Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers said: "Speaking and listening are as much a part of English competence as reading and writing. They are profoundly important skills. It is all very well to say they should still be taught even if they are not in the exam but, in the current high stakes system, if they are not tested for the league tables they won't count."

Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders expressed "serious concerns about the timing of changes to assessment structures. As a matter of principle, changes to assessment should never be introduced after students have started a course".

'Seriously flawed'

Ms Stacey said: "Speaking and listening are, of course, very important skills... but we have found that the design of the GCSE English qualification is seriously flawed. The proposed changes will make it more robust and will help protect against any repeat of the problems experienced last year. They will also mean a better balance between controlled assessment and written exams for the qualification."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "This is a matter for Ofqual, the independent regulator, which is responsible for GCSE standards. We support the action the regulator is taking to secure standards and integrity in these key qualifications."

Labour's shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg warned that it was important that Michael Gove did not downgrade teaching of speaking skills in England's schools.

"As parents know, young people need to be able to communicate confidently and articulately. It is important that the curriculum reflects that, and it's correct these are recorded separately, to ensure transparency."

The consultation is due to end in June.

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