Comment: How Gove’s GCSE plans put girls at a disadvantage

By Geoffrey Venn

I recently spoke at the ATL Conference to express my real fear that the proposals put forward by Michael Gove for transforming GCSE examinations would significantly disadvantage girls.

The proposals, as I understand them, are that each subject should be tested only by one single written examination of no longer than two hours. Continuous and modular assessments are no longer allowed. The rationale for this is that it will increase rigour in GCSEs and make the results more valid for students and employers.

This will certainly make the examination more reliable – but the important question for any examination is whether it is measuring reliably what you want it to measure, and this does not appear to have been addressed. The ability to remember and regurgitate facts in a highly pressurised situation may not be all that an employer would want, and I would hope that education could deliver and measure a lot more than that.

I am not an education researcher, and I do not have access to all the data I would like, but I was very much involved with the examination system in the 1980s and early 1990s, both as an examiner in chemistry and member of the chemistry subject panel and also as a member of the governing body of one of the examination boards. It became clear to us that as the new styles of examination that came in with the GCSE became embedded, the marks girls were achieving – which had always been inferior to boys in almost every subject – began to improve. This was true in nearly every subject, and the improvement coincided exactly with the introduction of such methods of assessment as continuous teacher assessment and modular assessment.

Such a coincidence does not prove any causal link; even if there is a causal link it may be that the new examination is less fit for purpose, and the advancement of girls' results is actually unfair. But I think policy makers looking at changing examinations back to almost the way they were pre-1988 ought to do considerable research to ascertain the likely gender impact of such changes.

Research into gender attitudes to subjects was carried out at this time, including the 'girls in science' studies at Kings' College London.  This told us that different teaching strategies could be used to involve girls more, as they were less 'adventurous' in putting forward their ideas.

It may be that these new strategies were responsible for the improvement in girls' results, or, as I and most teachers involved in the system at the time believed, the new style of examination provided a way for girls to become confident enough to succeed.

Do I believe that the differential in results between boys and girls would return to what it was pre-1988 if the current proposals are adopted?  I do not think all the gains would be lost for girls, but I think it would certainly favour boys in comparison. I also think that any government that is intending to bring in such a change would be very wise to look at, and research carefully, the sociological impact.

Geoffrey Venn is branch secretary of the Bedfordshire Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

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