Wednesday, 13 July 2016

RS Exam Reform

Religious Studies GCSE and A-Level were part of 'Phase 2' of the exam reform, ready for September 2016 teaching. This process could only really start with the final publication of the GCSE content in February 2015 (see <here>), even this long ago, some warned that the timeline was too short. In December 2014, when RE teachers raised their concerns about the timeline at the DfE, they were told not to worry. Others said it was vital we were in 'Phase 2' to have any chance of being in the EBacc (never happened anyway), and to be part of the Progress 8 measure (Phase 3 subjects can be counted in the 'open' group, exactly where RS is anyway).

Looking back now, maybe we should have campaigned harder to have the RS GCSE delayed to September 2017. The subject does have certain complexities that other subjects do not, including a greater number of stakeholders (not least the faith communities). It has a far wider range of options that need to be covered, and the introduction of a second religions is a significant training need for many.

However, let me clear, I am not advocating a boycott or petition to get the qualifications delayed. 'Phase 1' (English and Maths) are already "getting on with it", and many other subjects are in the same position as RS, struggling to be ready for September 2016. RS is not that special, but as it is my area of expertise forms the basis for this case study. At the end, I will put forward some suggestions.

Accreditation Timeline:

Proposed GCSE accreditation timeline (see <here>):
  • August 2015 - Awarding organisations submit draft specifications, sample assessment material and assessment strategy to Ofqual for accreditation.
  • September 2015 - Ofqual panels of subject experts review awarding organisations' submissions.
  • October 2015 - Ofqual decision on the accreditation of specifications.
  • October 2015 - Ofqual inform AOs of their decision on accreditation. AOs then make any necessary changes and submit revised specification and assessment material for re-accreditation.
  • Late Autumn 2015 - Accredited specifications submitted to schools to allow teachers enough time to prepare for first teaching in September 2016.
  • September 2016 - First teaching of new RS GCSE specifications in schools
Actual GCSE accreditation timeline - the dates when the accredited specifications were provided to schools:
  • February 2016 - AQA - 4 months after planned date, 6 months before teaching
  • March 2016 - OCR - 5 months after planned date, 5 months before teaching
  • May 2016 - Eduqas - 7 months after planned date, 3 months before teaching
  • June 2016 - Edexcel - 8 months after planned date, 2 months before teaching
Actual A-Level accreditation timeline;
  • April/May 2016 - AQA/Edexcel/Eduqas/OCR accredited*
Accreditation Process:

For reasons unknown, it took longer than envisaged for exam boards to submit their specifications. Probably as they were totally overloaded by the pace of the reform and had a whole range of subjects to write specs for, without the full time staff to do this. Again, RS had it's added complexities with the wide range of papers available. It is hard to say where GCSE RS would have fitted in their priorities.

There was also confused messages from the OFQUAL about what their exact role was - to simply make sure specifications fitted the DfE annexe and the OFQUAL Assessment requirements - or to ensure comparability across specifications. Some have said the number of resubmissions was high (up to 5), if feedback had been sufficient from the start. There have been reports from a variety of sources, that some feedback was vague, and lacked constructive comments to rectify what was wrong. I do struggle to believe the exam boards were simply incompetent. No doubt, OFQUAL were also overrun and unable to cope with demands being placed upon them.


I've had contact from someone who wanted to make clear that OFQUAL are a regulatory body and it's role was decide if spec met requirements set out by DfE. It's role was not to offer suggestions to improve specs, as boards are in competition with one another. To provide feedback that would influence quicker or slower approval would not be acceptable. It can give examples of where things have, or have not been met. There is obviously a fine line here, saying "You have not included this" is very similar in many ways to "Add this". All examining bodies had the same criteria to work with, and the questions about why some did it quicker than others will no doubt remain unanswered!

The Consequences:
  • Teaching from September 2015 with only DfE Annexe - Many schools teach a 3 year GCSE. The DfE said this is not how GCSEs are designed, but it's this, or not at all for many schools. This is not unique to RS, but is perhaps more common with RS. Teachers have been using the annex or having to change after each submission.
  • Many textbooks are not ready - Some GCSE books will not be with teachers until October / November 2016. A Level ones potentially later, maybe even September 2017. These are vital guides to teachers about level of depth required. Also some scholars cited on A-Level are apparently out of print, new resources are needed to resurrect their work and contributions, or at the least present them in an accessible way.
  • Some textbooks have errors - This is as their publication was rushed. This includes those accredited by the exam board (Pope Francis is from Argentina, not Brazil, for the record.).
  • Budgets  - Departments have had to find finances for both GCSE and A-Level textbooks at the same time. Some schools have been able to provide additional funding, but not all.
  • Editable schemes of work not published - A huge time-saver for teachers, usually provided by the exam board and currently (13/7/16) not ready for some boards. Particularly at A-Level they also indicate the required depth / time spent on areas. A colleague mentioned that he worked on these for the 2008 exam changes and believes whole process is 6 to 12 months behind at this point.
  • Additional resources not ready - Again another time-saver for teachers when planning, some exam boards have not got these ready, as they have put their focus on getting specs accredited.
  • INSET - Some teachers have attended INSET from exam boards, cascaded to staff, and then had to redo after changes made, especially to exam technique. A clear waste of time.
  • Key Stage 3 Review - Given new demands of GCSEs, there has not been time to adequately adapt KS3 including content and assessment.
Teachers are not able to use their 'gained time' during the final few weeks, and are giving up weekends and holidays to attend courses provided by third parties, sometimes out of their own pocket. There are schools organising their own planning days (in the holidays), and teachers desperately posting in panic on Facebook groups created to share, and crucially help. One teacher said they had cut their family holiday to work on preparing for September.

In 2014, the DfE did a workload survey. These exam reforms have placed a huge additional workload on teachers, and the timescales have produced unnecessary stress, and further damage to work/life balance. Everyone has a part to play in reducing workload, but it feels somewhat hypocritical of the DfE. There are already recruitment and retention issues; has this helped or hindered that situation?

Current Feeling:

Via Twitter:

Save RE Facebook Group:

The RE Teacher's Forum Facebook Group:

The Other Side of the Argument:

There are a few reasons why some have said we should just get on with it (and let's be honest, we don't have any choice really!). It is right to be excited about the new qualifications, as they are indeed better. It was also mentioned that 'Phase 1' have gone ahead, and so there is no justification for delaying 'Phase 2'. Teachers have also been working super hard to get ready, and a delay at this stage would be catastrophic (I agree, and hence never suggesting this). Plus the bottom line, is that teachers will go above and beyond to ensure their students don't suffer (Of course they will, that's what we do - but it doesn't mean this is right).

  • The DfE need to listen to teachers - In December 2014, concerns were raised. They were ignored, and countered with threats that to miss September 2016 would mean no Ebacc and no Progress 8. We are still not in the Ebacc (and not likely to be), and I can't see how we would have been excluded from the 'Open' group in Progress 8?
  • The DfE need to listen to exam boards - Apparently, they raised concerns with pace of reform, but were ignored. The same mistakes were made with 'Phase 1', and will be made again with 'Phase 3', The DfE believe all accreditation will take place before Christmas 2016 for September 2017 subjects - what exactly has changed this time around?
  • GCSE and A Level changes should not come together - If the GCSE changed in 2016, and A Level in 2017 or ideally 2018, this would have a drastic effect on teachers. It would also mean A Level students in 2016 or 2017 would be better prepared for the increased rigor and demands of the qualifications. 
  • '6 month cutoff' - It may be worthwhile having a cut off point, that if accreditation has not happened by the end of February, 6 months before first teaching, it is not allowed for teaching that coming September. This may prompt exam boards to submit earlier, OFQUAL to accredit quicker, with better feedback, and teachers to have sufficient preparation time.
  • OFSTED, S48 (SIAMS / CES / etc) Recognition - A public statement recognising the current situation schools are in regarding the transition, particularly for S48 inspections. Most RE Departments would be happy with a S48 this year as everything, quite rightly is in place, this will not be the case next year. Imagine such an inspection in Autumn 2016? 
  • Great Collaboration -
    • SACREs, NATRE Local Groups, Dioceses and any other groups need to think carefully about how best to use their time over the next two years. Instead of meetings where information is cascaded, think about including time for co-planning, moderating marking, resource creation. 
    • Facebook groups with GoogleDrive / Dropbox are a really useful. Teachers need to be proactively uploading and sharing, as well as waiting for resources to download. Someone once suggested to me that it is just 2-3% of teachers willing to upload/share. 
    • Willing schools, perhaps those with Teaching School status, may be able to host evenings or days for teachers (and not just HoDs) to work together. Imagine what 10 RE teachers in a computer room could achieve in a day?
  • Awareness
    • Heads of Department need to be alerting their line managers / SLT / headteacher of the current situation. They should know already (it's not only RS!), and it should obviously not be an excuse for poor standards. Realistically planning cannot be in place for both GCSE and A Level for the two year course for 1st September 2016. In some schools this is being asked for.
    • It is also worth nothing that OFQUAL have said they will not publish grade boundaries until after 2018 exams, anything teachers produce will be an approximation. CPD / meeting time may need review to use time most productively.
  • Being Realistic -
    • You will not have even the whole first year planned and resourced for September 2016. Don't beat yourself up about it. Review termly, plan collaboratively.
    • Your lessons will become more engaging as your familiarise yourself with the spec. Consider adding useful videos to this document <here>. Your lessons in September 2017 for Y10 will be better than those this September, and that's okay.

A useful mantra for the next few years is this:

"Chunk. Collaborate. Share." Mr D Kenny

There is a great opportunity for schools to work together, embracing technology and existing networks. Teachers need to be given some time and leeway to do this. Teachers also need the confidence to share - your resources are worth sharing!

I did think GCSE RS needed reform urgently, there was good reason in my mind as to why the old qualifications were not in the EBacc. I also think A-Level RS needed reform, perhaps less urgently. 

However, the timescales for this were all wrong. Teachers are further overworked, and students will suffer. DfE, this isn't right. Please learn from it. Some of us will probably be here next time around...

*I struggled to find more accurate dates - if you let me know, I will update

Image courtesy of YouTube

No comments:

Post a Comment