GCSE shake-up: What’s the evidence?

The Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment has conducted an analysis of research relevant to the government’s proposals to change GCSEs.Their report considers issues specific to the examinations themselves as well as the wider context.

The headline question is perhaps “are exams getting easier?” The authors found that overall, research evidence does not point to a decline in the cognitive demand of examination questions, and that modular assessment has not been found to be consistently easier than end-of-course examinations. In fact, they found that high-stakes end-of-course examinations produce negative effects on teaching and learning.

In terms of whether there is a need for change, international test scores show that England does not compare poorly to other countries and that test scores show no decline. However, England does have a particularly wide spread between the lowest and highest achievers. This highlights, they say, the need for provision for low-achieving students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds in England to be improved.

Source: Research Evidence Relating to Proposals for Reform of the GCSE (2013), Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.

Academies help the top pupils, not those at the bottom

A special paper from the Centre for Economic Performance has analysed the success of those schools that have converted to academies.

The paper concludes that schools that converted to academies between 2002 and 2007 improved their overall GCSE results by further raising the achievement of pupils in the top half of the ability distribution, and in particular pupils in the top 20%. In contrast, they found little evidence that academies helped pupils in the bottom 20% of the ability distribution. For schools that have converted to academies recently (in 2008 and 2009) they found no evidence of improvement at all.

The authors suggest that new ‘rules of the game’ should be designed to make sure that schools have incentives to focus on the most disadvantaged pupils and are held accountable for their progress.

Source: School Structure, School Autonomy and the Tail (2013), The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Pupil motivation and school reform

The Center on Education Policy in the US offers a series of papers that examines topics related to pupils’ academic motivation. The summary paper, Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, summarises findings from a wide array of studies by academics in a range of disciplines, as well as lessons from programmes intended to increase motivation.

Topics include: why motivation is important and how it might be defined and measured; whether rewarding pupils can result in higher motivation; whether pupils can be motivated by goal-setting; the role of parental involvement, family background, and culture; strategies schools might use to motivate pupils; and non-traditional approaches to motivating otherwise unenthusiastic pupils.

A few of the many suggestions that the authors offer for schools to consider are:

  • Programmes that reward academic accomplishments are most effective when they reward pupils for mastering certain skills or increasing their understanding rather than rewarding them for reaching a performance target or outperforming others.
  • Tests are more motivating when pupils have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through low-stakes tests, performance tasks, or frequent assessments that gradually increase in difficulty before they take a high-stakes test.

Source:S tudent Motivation: An overlooked piece of school reform (2012), Center on Education Policy

Citizenship education in Europe

This report from the Eurydice network summarises how policies and measures relating to citizenship education have evolved in recent years. Citizenship education has gained prominence in teaching across Europe, with 20 of the 31 countries (EU Member States, Iceland, Norway, Croatia, and Turkey) dedicating a separate compulsory subject to its teaching.

The report focusses in particular on curriculum aims and organisation; student and parent participation in schools; school culture and student participation in society; assessment and evaluation; and support for teachers and school heads.

Citizenship features on the curriculum in all countries, but the authors say that more needs to be done to improve teachers’ knowledge and skills for teaching it. In general, citizenship education is integrated into initial teacher training courses for secondary education in subjects such as history and geography, but only England and Slovakia offer training as a specialist teacher in citizenship education.

Source: Citizenship education in Europe (2012), Eurydice

Keep your eye on the ball

Major football tournaments can be a serious distraction for some pupils, particularly during critical exam periods. A study by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation, published to coincide with the draw for next summer’s UEFA European football championship, found that some pupils perform less well in their GCSEs in years when there is a major international football tournament taking place. The effect was particularly noticeable for boys, and pupils from poorer areas, groups that are already lower performers on average.

Source: Student effort and educational attainment: Using the England football team to identify the education production function (2011), The Centre for Market and Public Organisation,

Self-paced learning looks promising

A new study by the Institute for Effective Education has shown that self-paced learning could produce significant gains in primary maths learning. In self-paced learning pupils answer, at their own pace, questions delivered directly to electronic handsets.

The technology instantly marks the responses and feeds back the results to both pupil and teacher. Teachers can use this formative assessment to help pupils and guide future teaching. Significant gains in pupils’ mathematical learning were made by those pupils using the self-paced learning technology.

Source: Self-paced learning: Effective technology-supported formative assessment report on achievement findings (2011), Institute for Effective Education