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ASENI Response to the DE Consultation on the Fundamental Review of GCSES and A LEVELS

2 January 2014

The ASE is a community of teachers, technicians and other professionals supporting science education and is the largest subject association in the UK. Our responses to the consultations specifically relate to Science qualifications.

Works Cited

Ofsted, 2013. Maintaining curiosity a survey into science education in schools, s.l.: s.n.

SCORE, 2012. Reforming KS4 Qualifications, s.l.: s.n.

SCORE, 2013. Reforming GCSE Qualifications, s.l.: s.n.

SCORE, August 2013. Reformed GCSE Subject Content, s.l.: s.n 

Question 1 

We agree

In the short term the ASE feel that no changes should be made however in due course we would like to see the quality of assessment placed at the centre of any reform. It is the content and quality of assessment that drives teaching in schools, rather than the specifications. It is imperative that assessment is well designed to ensure full curriculum coverage and progression in the development of skills. (SCORE, 2013) 

Assessment has a range of different purposes, including accountability, certification, progression to the next stage of education and differentiation between candidates. Assessment systems operate most effectively when they have a primary use for which the assessment has been designed, so there does at least need to be a prioritisation of purposes, in order to design a system that is fit for purpose. (Score, 2012)

We are currently concerned about the lack of lines of progression and continuity between primary, KS3 and KS4 in Science. The lack of any specified content in KS2 and KS3 has led to a very content heavy curriculum in KS4 which has necessitated a more didactic approach towards teaching. This has decreased opportunities for practical work, enquiry based learning and independent learning. This will have had impact on skills development.

The ASE believes that the current A level examinations do not provide sufficient differentiation across the complete range of valued grades A* -E. Grades awarded are distributed across a narrow range of marks. This significantly decreases the value of youngsters who attain lower grades. We would recommend that increased rigour and challenge should come from improving assessment schemes and assessment items rather than from increasing the amount or level of the specified content, although there is a need to include more modern Physics in the A level specification. Assessment marking criteria should reward youngsters for extended knowledge and thinking outside the box. 

If there are any significant changes made to the assessment procedures which will significantly impact teaching and learning, teachers will need to be provided with timely and relevant CPD to support them to meet the requirements in their already overcrowded day. 

Question 2 

We felt that this question was so wide ranging and encompassed so many different aspects of the qualifications, some of which we agree with and others disagree, so we did not feel it was appropriate to make an overall judgement. 

The ASE strongly believes that Science should be included as a core subject within the NI GCSE curriculum for all youngsters. 

Studying science should be a core requirement at key stage 4. Qualifications should provide a useful and engaging experience for all 16 year olds, including those who will not become scientists or take science A-levels. At the same time, there is a need to prepare some students with the specific knowledge and skills they will require for further study in science subjects.  (SCORE, August 2013) 

There should be clear lines of progression for Science from Primary to KS4 with assessment opportunities to measure progress in a meaningful manner. 

We believe that limiting societal needs met by assessment to the Northern Ireland education policy and economy is short sighted. Assessments should be future proof and reflect the needs of the European and world economy in order to attract foreign investment and provide our youngsters with opportunities further afield. We do however fully recommend that local employers work with local regional colleges to develop courses which meet their specific needs. 

Assessment needs to consider developing independent learning skills from GCSE and stretching the more able students through the application of understanding to unfamiliar scenarios. Success within the current science assessment schemes tends to lend itself to rote learning content and drilling examination technique. 

The concerns often voiced by employers, higher education, and the scientific community’s professional bodies, that too many school leavers are not well enough equipped scientifically with practical, investigative and analytical skills. These are vital if young people are to flourish in a technological world and to contribute to economic development. (Ofsted, 2013). It is important that the skills of scientific enquiry are an integral part of the qualification and this will necessitate internal assessment. Sufficient curriculum time must be provided to enable youngsters to develop these skills otherwise it will become another “hoop jumping” exercise.

Further work is needed to establish the most appropriate way of managing this assessment to ensure both the validity and reliability of the assessment, and that students experience a range of practical activities in the classroom (SCORE, 2013). 

We have strong reservations that the present system of internal assessment is not fit for purpose. We believe it is inherently flawed and abused. We therefore have concerns about quality assurance and reliability. It is important however that some practical components are contained within the assessment in order to ensure practical work takes place in the classroom. We would recommend investigating the “log book” approach in the Irish Junior and Senior Science certificates. 

ASE does not believe that single-tiered assessment can accurately and fairly measure performance across the whole ability range, and therefore we would support the retention of some form of tiered assessment (SCORE, 2013). The content should not be significantly different to enable flexibility in tier entry. 

A single tiered assessment system cannot accurately and fairly measure achievement across all abilities whilst raising aspirations and increasing the motivation of all. The early years of GCSEs existed in a three tiered system (foundation, intermediate and higher) which allowed for a greater degree of stretch and challenge in the assessment items, while also allowing for lower-achieving students to receive a grade demonstrating their level of achievement. Moving from a three-tiered to a two-tiered model has made it harder to differentiate between the most able students because there are not enough questions at the A/A* level. A single tiered system would exacerbate this problem, particularly if one of the purposes of the assessment was to provide certification: .

Assessments would also have to be very long in order to allow for sufficient items to assess the full range of ability. (Score, 2012) 

ASE agrees that the opportunity to take numerous re-sits has had a negative effect on the GCSE qualification: students do not always treat the exam seriously if they know they have the opportunity to re-sit; it offers perverse incentives for teachers to focus on accountability measures; and it can significantly reduce the amount of teaching time.

(Score, 2012)

 The structure of modular examinations generally supports the attainment of less able students and we welcome the provision of this flexibility to improve the accessibility of science for all. However we are concerned that effective teaching of the current schemes to meet the modular examination dates results in a reduction in whole class practical work and opportunities for youngsters to develop independent learning skills. 

Question 3

We agree 

The ASE are concerned that if the qualifications in NI diverge significantly from the other regions in the United Kingdom all youngsters will be required to sit the same science qualification at GCSE administered by CCEA. Whilst we strongly believe that Science should be compulsory for all youngsters to 16 there also needs to be flexibility within the assessment schemes to meet the differing needs and skills of different groups of youngsters. We are concerned about due to the current position of science in our curriculum it will become an elitist subject only for most able youngsters.

There does need to be a charm offensive for vocational education with a strong input from industry. Youngsters and parents need to see it as a valuable alternative career pathway.

Success and uptake with vocational qualifications will be significantly dependent on the provision of effective CPD and sufficient school resourcing. Teachers will also need to be provided with time to develop effective schemes of work and meet the labour intensive assessment requirements of vocational qualifications. 

Question 4 

We agree

We do not feel that there is a need for another maths qualification. Life skills maths should be covered at KS3. 

Question 5 

We disagree 

The ASE feel that GCSEs and A levels results should be used as accountability measures however we feel that the measures currently being used are intrinsically flawed. 

The use of Northern Ireland grammar school averages, secondary school averages, residuals and FSM are too crude to be meaningful. The ASE would recommend the use of value added data to measure the progress and contextualised data to provide personalised measures and targets which would be more effective at identifying good practice and supporting school improvement.

The ASE has concerns about CCEA acting as a regulator, curriculum provider and examination board. It is the recommendation of the ASE that these roles should be undertaken by three independent entities. It is important that the curriculum provider and assessor are two separate entities under the guidance of a regulatory structure to ensure that curriculum format, contents and provision is not determined by the expediency of assessment. 

Question 6    

We agree 

The ASE would strongly recommend that before money is spent on developing a strategy that mechanisms are put into place to effectively implement, monitor and evaluate the strategy for an extended period. We feel this was not carefully considered and effectively carried out for the revised curriculum. 

The ASE feel that the entitlement framework is good in theory however the practicalities do not always allow children to meet their needs. Our members are also concerned about the impact the wide range of less traditional GCSE options will have on youngsters’ career progression and the uptake of more grittier subjects. 

Question 7 


There should be no change- status quo should be maintained

Strongly disagree


There should be some change but not significant (in line with CCEA’s report)



There is no longer a need for high-stakes examinations at age 16 due to the vast majority of learners now staying on at school/FE College



Assessment at age 16 should be largely internal (conducted by the teacher) with the information used to inform future qualification routes

Strongly disagree


Choice at 18 should be wider and less focused than at present e.g. studying a wider range of qualifications with less depth than A level – to keep options open for learners

No view


There should be a radical change – a completely new model

No view


Other proposal (please specify)

Strongly agree

We feel there is a need for a detailed review which considers best practice from other countries.

The ASE strongly feels that longer term work on continuity and progression of skills and key ideas in science is needed from KS1. It is essential that groups working on primary, KS3, KS4 and KS5 do not work in isolation. 

There also needs to be value and recognition placed on achievement outside the curriculum.  Head teachers place little value on enrichment and engagement activities, priority is given to activities which will improve exam results. 

Any further developments must consider the workload of teachers and sufficient time and CPD must be provided for teachers to plan, implement and evaluate their provision. 

Michelle Ryan NI ASE Field Officer  19th December