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Will it all end in tiers?

Michael Gove has said that he is unhappy with the idea of different tiers in GCSE examinations*. He argues that the Foundation tier limits aspiration.

It is easy to see where his argument fits within the agenda of raising aspirations for all but we need to look at this carefully.

Although the GCSE was set up in 1987 to be an exam aimed at nearly the whole ability range and to replace the discredited sheep/goats O-levels and CSE, it was immediately obvious that a one-exam-fits-all would not work in practice. Tiers (they were called levels then, with Foundation tier originally called Basic level) were set up to deal with this issue, with most exams having two tiers, maths even having three tiers in early incarnations of the system.

The fact of the matter is that the range of pupil aptitude is so wide that, for the most able, an all-encompassing exam would have sections which are far too easy, and for the least able, much of the exam would be beyond their capability. This is not a question of low aspiration, this is just a fact of life.

Maths and modern languages teachers in particular are aware of the problems teaching a wide range of abilities. In other subjects varying aptitudes can be accommodated more easily. This is why most secondary schools put their maths and languages pupils in sets.

One obvious problem of tiering in practice is that there are many pupils on the borderline of Foundation and Higher and for whom delicate decisions have to be made based on the teacher's knowledge, pupils' prior attainment and the individual wishes of the student and even parent. It is not always easy to get this right, and because exam boards change their grading assessments each year the teacher cannot be certain that he or she has made the decision which will ensure the best grade outcome.

Does tiering also, as claimed, put a limit on aspiration and the amount of work a pupil will do? There may be something in this, but my own experience is that a decision to enter a pupil for Foundation tier is based on a realistic assessment of aptitude and that, for many pupils, Foundation tier is a significant challenge.

Now, you might argue that it is not beyond our wits to be able to design a common examination for nearly all pupils. Well, yes, and it would be rather like what we had in the early days of GCSE, whereby all Higher level pupils entered for both Foundation (Basic) and Higher level. This meant that very bright students did questions which were far too easy for them, but the justification was that they had to show they could jump the easy hurdles too.

 I would argue that, in modern languages at least, tiering is still a sensible solution if you are to have a single qualification for nearly all pupils. We do not want to put pupils of moderate aptitude through assessments they simply cannot cope with, whatever their efforts and the efforts of the teacher. Conversely, it is a waste of time for very bright students to be doing assessments below their natural level.

Tiering was a clever solution to the initial conundrum of having one exam for all abilities. The overlapping element in the papers allows the weaker candidate to be stretched and the reasonably bright student to cope with the tougher papers.

And, just as a coda here, how about a new name for whatever succeeds GCSE?
GCE Standard level?
GCE Foundation level?
Foundation baccalaureate?

GCSE?

Oh and (Columbo voice)... just one more thing. We could return to the word level which we all understand very clearly. "Foundation tier" is the equivalent of a British Rail "standard class" ticket.

*UPDATE February 2013

We have kept the term GCSE, but as things stand, Michael Gove has rejected the idea of tiers for the exam. We shall see if this survives consultation. It should not.

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