On the eve of this year’s GCSE results, the National Education Union (NEU) has carried out a snapshot poll of members about their perceptions of how recent reforms to the qualifications have impacted on the students they teach.

The GCSE poll finds that the reforms have predominantly worsened the situation for students.

  • 73% of respondents believe that student mental health has worsened since the introduction of reformed GCSEs;
  • 54% believe that students’ ability is less accurately recorded by GCSEs than before; and
  • 61% have seen a worsening of student engagement in education as a result of the reforms.

Legacy GCSEs are those which existed before the reforms. They were graded A*-G and included exams, coursework and controlled assessments taken throughout the duration of the course. The reformed GCSEs that we now have are graded 9-1 and have seen many subjects become assessed solely by exams taken at the end of the course.

The survey results are published a week after a similar poll about the impact on students of reforms to A-Levels. This also showed a worsening of mental health (55%), a fall in student engagement (34%) and a common view that A-Levels record ability less accurately (37%). (1)

We asked teachers on the front line how, if it all, the assessment method for the reformed GCSEs has impacted on student mental health, compared to the legacy GCSEs. Three-quarters (73%) believe it has got worse, with a vanishingly small 3% believing it to have been alleviated.

The assessment method of reformed GCSEs has made student mental health better

3%

Student mental health is about the same as before the reforms

16%

The assessment method of reformed GCSEs has made student mental health worse

73%

Don’t know

8%

 

When asked how well in their opinion do reformed GCSEs reflect your students’ true ability, when compared to legacy GCSEs, a majority (54%) believe them to be less effective at capturing skills. One-fifth (19%) saw an improvement.

Reformed GCSEs reflect my students’ ability more accurately than legacy ones did

19%

Reformed GCSEs reflect students’ ability with about the same accuracy as legacy

21%

Reformed GCSEs reflect my students’ ability less accurately than legacy ones did

54%

N/A: I never taught the legacy GCSEs

3%

Don’t know

2%

 

Finally, we asked members how, if at all, are GCSE reforms impacting upon student engagement in education. Again, the results were largely negative with 61% believing it to have decreased, and just 7% perceiving an improvement.

The reforms have increased student engagement

7%

Student engagement is about the same as before the reforms

28%

The reforms have decreased student engagement

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61%

Don’t know

4%

 

In individual comments responding to this final question, common words and themes revolved around how the new GCSEs have led to students feeling they are overwhelmed, stressed, demotivated, struggling, disillusioned, with passion for subjects gone, and a sense they have already failed.

These criticisms were often rooted in the course having too much content, a pressure to teach to the test, and an approach that was too reliant on memory and did not allow students to develop an enjoyment of the subject.

There were also concerns about the concentration of a great many higher-stakes exams within a short period of time:

  • “More content heavy, too much to cram in. Not relevant to their concerns, not practical.”
  • “Harder content comes earlier and students switch off. There is no coursework to incentivise working before exams.”
  • “Students are engaging with purely exam aspects of subject, i.e. how to answer an exam question, rather than developing a passion for the subject.”
  • “It is just focused on memorisation rather than engagement and application. There's no joy in learning anymore”
  • “Those who learn best through vocational methods (especially SEND) are being switched off to education.”
  • “There is more pressure on exams so less time to explore content fully which leads to ‘teaching to the exam’ as there is no space to explore content deeper.”
  • “Students feel guilty for any time not spent revising and their mental well-being is being significantly affected. This includes students of all abilities.”
  • “The reforms have given us awards more relevant to the late 1950s than the priorities of today. This means that students with real talent, crucial to today's needs, spend their secondary education feeling incompetent and irrelevant and those who can regurgitate contemporary but skill-less content are buoyed up, only to be let down when they attempt to enter the employment market, when they are told for the first time that their vast recall of pointless facts has not prepared them for employment prospects in the 21st century.”
  • “Pupils assume they are going to fail before they sit the exams so have less motivation. The coursework aspect gave pupils a real boost when they could see they had already banked marks towards GCSEs.”
  • “Students disengage more readily because they feel that succeeding in the current system is impossible despite extremely focused lessons being taught to enable them to pass the test (exclusively, to the detriment of learning in a more fulfilling manner). Students are failing because the system is failing them.”

Of the 7% who believed the reforms had improved student engagement, the tendency within their comments was to interpret the question as students feeling pressure to focus rather than enjoy a rounded interest in the subject.

Mostly these remarks confirmed the increased stakes of a single end-of-course exam:

  • “Students know they are under pressure now to take everything on board, every single lesson counts towards the exams.”
  • “I think they are realising the need to build on knowledge and skills and to practise for improvement. They know that cramming and leaving their revision until the last minute does not pay off and the vast majority take mocks seriously because the school place so much importance on them. The results they get have consequences.”
  • “More engaged, as students know they need to focus on all parts of the course as the final exam could test them on any part.”

One striking finding of the survey was the growth in GCSE entry in Year 9 rather than Year 10, with children in effect expected to make a decision on their future at age 12. This trend has been increasing in recent years, but never higher than today: 61% of members confirmed that this was going on in their subject at their school.

In the general comments box, respondents expanded on this:

  • “3 years is too long to study for a single attempt at an exam.”
  • “Many schools (including my own) now run the GCSE course over 3 years which puts too much pressure on the students, especially when we are asking them to write critically and evaluatively about texts when they are too young to do so.”

And went on:

  • “I think they are hugely impacting the mental health of teachers… putting teachers under increased stress and with unrealistic targets.”
  • “Due to the increased pressure to deliver content heavy GCSEs and the added workload that this has created, I have just ended my 20-year-long teaching career.”

Commenting on this survey, Nansi Ellis, Assistant General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“These findings from our NEU survey clearly show serious consideration is needed over how best to meaningfully assess students’ ability. It is incredible that Government has managed to create a new GCSE system that the majority of teachers (54%) do not believe gives a true reflection of student ability.

“Assessment in the majority of subjects by end of year exams only, and excessive content crammed into too short a time, is resulting in an exam system that is largely about regurgitating facts with very little time for thinking or deeper learning. Not only does this fail to reflect students’ ability but is leading to many feeling disillusioned, disengaged and stressed.

“The increase in content for many GCSEs has led to a significant number of schools now starting GCSE teaching in Year 9. This means that pupils make their choices in Year 8, when they’ve had fewer than 5 terms’ experience of learning, particularly in subjects such as design technology, MFL and the separate humanities. This both narrows the curriculum and increases pressure on children who are only 12 to make decisions that they are told are vital to their future lives and careers.”

The online poll of 650 members of the National Education Union was conducted between 26 July – 2 August 2019. All respondents taught GCSE classes this year.

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