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Norfolk headteachers warn Gove’s exam reforms will “demoralise” pupils and teachers

PUBLISHED: 11:58 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 12:25 18 September 2012

Education Secretary Michael Gove sits next to Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss as exam reforms are announced . Photo: PA

Education Secretary Michael Gove sits next to Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss as exam reforms are announced . Photo: PA

Headteachers in the region last night said Michael Gove’s exam reforms risked “demoralising” students and teachers alike by failing to recognise young people as individuals.

The education leaders warned ignoring those youngsters not suited to a single, terminal exam, would mean some teenagers, no matter how able, would miss out.

Secretary of state Mr Gove yesterday confirmed details of the exams overhaul that was first suggested earlier in the summer as thousands of teenagers took their GCSE assessments.

The reforms, which aim to end years of “dumbing down” claims, will see all young people from 2015 working towards the English Baccalaureate certificate.

Courses in English, maths, science, humanities and a language, will be graded based on a single exam taken at the end of two years’ study – with the first taking place in 2017.

Fears of a two-tiered system, like that of the former O-levels and CSEs, were allayed by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who is thought to have battled with the education secretary to ensure the new system would “raise the bar without shutting the door”.

And Mr Gove insisted the new arrangements would be accessible to all, with less able pupils able to take the assessments at the age of 17 or 18 if teachers could show they were not ready at 16.

But last night headteachers in the region disputed that and said the decision to revert to a single terminal exam would put high-level qualifications out of reach for many.

David Brunton, principal at City Academy Norwich, in Earlham, called the new system “demoralising” and said: “I think we’re in danger of creating second class citizens.

“We’re looking at one method of examining knowledge, skills and understanding when people – not just young people – have a much wider range of intelligences that just regurgitating information on paper once every few years.”

Penny Bignell, headteacher at Cromer Academy, added: “Taking the assessment all at once is very harsh and will have a huge impact on students’ success and their confidence.

“I think coursework is an essential part of exams. We don’t spend our lives sitting in halls taking exams. We do spend our time writing reports and doing projects. We need to look at the skills we need for our lives.”

Nicole McCartney, principal at one of the country’s most improved schools, Ormiston Venture Academy in Gorleston, said the “all or nothing approach” would be unfair to many students who worked incredibly hard throughout the year.

“I have students who are young carers, I have students who are being looked after by our child protection officer. What about if those students have a bad day?” she said. “Why are they trying to make things difficult for our young people?”

Old Buckenham High School headteacher Peter Whear said he could only see Mr Gove’s plans further disadvantaging less able pupils and insisted the more “rigorous” system demanded by so many could work hand in hand with more flexible assessment methods.

“Terminal exams will suit those who are able to rote learn large amounts and regurgitate from memory,” he said. “That’s a very valuable skill. But it doesn’t always go hand in hand with good types of learning. We’re seeking to encourage our youngsters to develop their skills and develop other skills that employers are very keen to see in people.”

But while giving his speech to the House of Commons yesterday, the education secretary urged his critics not to adopt a “fatalistic” view of the changes.

“Some will argue that more rigorous qualifications ... will inevitably lead to more students failing,” said Mr Gove, who admitted different arrangements would need to be made for courses like art or design and technology, which did not lend themselves to single exams.

“But we believe that fatalism is indicative of a dated mind-set; one that believes in a distribution of abilities so fixed that great teaching can do little to change them.”

Despite their concerns about the proposals put forward by Mr Gove – who yesterday launched a consultation – many Norfolk headteachers acknowledged that reform of some kind was needed to address shortcomings in the current system.

Ian Clayton, principal at Thorpe St Andrew High School, in Norwich, said he would welcome the end of a culture where re-taking exams had become the norm for many and a system where schools no longer felt the need to be “chasing league tables”.

While Melvyn Roffe, principal at Wymondham College, said taking time to bring in a new system would at least avoid the “retrospective changes” which took place during English GCSE assessments as exam boards sought to make the assessment more rigorous – without telling teachers.

Headteachers also welcomed news that a single exam board would be responsible for delivering a subject, making the system simpler and less expensive for schools. Mr Gove said the move would end the “corrupt... race to the bottom”.

Last night South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, who sat beside Michael Gove in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon having recently been promoted to the front benches as an education minister, said: “This is a very positive development; we have launched a consultation today and I look forward to hearing a wide range of views.”

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