Last month, thousands of students’ hands shook opening GCSE results envelopes. Within was not just their own future, quite enough to shake about, but grades available for comment by just about anyone, including a government vying for re-election, angle-seeking journalists and a public mistrusting the rigour of GCSEs. It seems everyone has an opinion, Who, if anyone, is correct?

The National Union of Students (NUS) has warned the government that the most significant set of reforms since the introduction of GCSEs 30 years ago could be detrimental to students. Schools’ minister Nick Gibb, however, say this year’s results (which has seen the proportion of grade Cs in English falling, but an overall modest increase) are a “tribute to coalition changes”.

Linear courses

In September 2012, linear GCSEs – with assessment only at the end of the course – were introduced to replace modular exams. “We know constant testing is unpopular and we are ending the exam treadmill by returning A-levels to linear exams at the end of two years,” said The Department for Education. “This will ensure students gain a deep understanding of their subjects and end the culture of constant assessment and results”.

Joe Vinson, NUS Vice President (further education) said: “It is unfair and reductive to penalise young people this way and could reduce their chances for success in later life. It’s absolutely unacceptable to expect students to learn for two years solid and then be assessed solely at the end with no testing on a modular or even yearly basis. It is detrimental to many students who are perfectly able to understand and apply knowledge, but who may struggle with anxiety when under pressure.”

Fewer resits

Resits will only be available in November and only for maths, English and English language. Many agree that the resit culture dangerously fails to reflect real life. Also, the opportunity to resit means that league tables are often prioritised over student welfare. For example, students can be pushed to sit an exam early to increase their chance of getting a passing C grade.

Gove’s decision that only a first exam sitting counts towards league tables means there has been a 40 percent decrease in the number of pupils put in GCSE exams early to increase numbers of C grades, allowing these students longer to study for exams and possibly even boosting results.

However, Vinson said Denying students the chance to resit goes against one of the most important things about further education, because it will set up a system that will only benefit those who never make a mistake rather than those who need a second chance.

We want effective and rigorous GCSEs, but ones that prepare our students not only for the next step in their lives, but for the whole journey. We need a curriculum and assessments that allows all students to achieve to the best of their ability that showcases the strengths of many, not the privilege of a few.”

Tougher assessment

The Department of Education promises that more rigorous assessment, including reduced coursework, more essay-style questions and a change in the grading system, will provide a “more reliable measure of students’ achievements”.

GCSE grades will be numbered 8 (top) to 1 (bottom), 8 being a kind of A** and the pass mark will be pushed higher. This is a response to grade inflation, intending to provide more differentiation between students achieving higher grades.

‘Hard’ subjects such as maths, science and English will be prioritised and the arts and vocational subjects side-lined. Nicky Morgan hopes that a return to traditional subjects will ensure “more young people will have studied the difficult demanding subjects which employers value most.”

A teacher at a Buckinghamshire school said that “too many children are taking subjects the are told to be GCSE-equivalent only to not be accepted by universities as no admission officer had heard of their subjects. Different kids at different schools are being given different opportunities, simply because schools lower down the league tables were so desperate to get A* to C grades that they let their students take easier subjects that wouldn’t actually get them anywhere.”

A new more “challenging” maths GCSE wholly assessed by exam will also be introduced. Schools have been encouraged to provide at least one extra hour of maths a week to accommodate the changes. Also, from January 2013, marks will be available for grammar, punctuation and spelling in English literature, geography, history and religious studies exams.

A NUS poll found that over 80 percent of respondents agreed that coursework should remain a part of assessment and that the current system of grading A* to G should not be replaced. While 90 percent of respondents also agreed that students should be able to resit all subjects.

Tonly Little, head of Eton College, complained about England’s “unimaginative” exam system that he thinks fails pupils. He says we’ve idealised “the same straitjacket that the Chines are trying to wriggle out of. We should be wary of emulating Shanghai just as they themselves see some value in the liberal values of an all-round education – something we have traditionally been good at.”

These GCSE reforms narrowly focus on exams, the UK’s image on the world stage and traditional subjects. Whether these reforms truly benefit students, or are simply sculpting education into a career-tool which undervalues the joy of learning, will take the rigorous testing of the next few years to be seen – and not just in examinations, but in student response. After all, who else is education for?