The Effects on Schools and Pupils of Modularising GCSEs

In 2009, a suite of revised GCSEs was introduced for first teaching. For the first time, all subjects were offered in modular specifications, where previously the majority were only offered linearly. For some time, modular assessment – and resits in particular – have featured in the public discourse on standards. Despite Ofqual incorporating rules to limit resit opportunities and to require forty per cent terminal assessment in new GCSEs, the coalition government expressed concerns over modular assessment early on, particularly at GCSE. In anticipation of a consultation on reverting to linear assessment, a study was conducted to gain some understanding of schools’ experiences of using the newly modularised GCSEs. A series of semi-structured interviews was conducted with (mainly) deputy head teachers in a variety of schools, sampled according to governance model. Participants were asked about the effect of modular assessment on teaching and learning, and the wider impact on financial and organisational aspects of schools. The findings suggest that the burden of assessment associated with modular GCSEs limited the number of subjects in which schools adopted a modular approach. There was also an apparent divide between independent/selective schools and comprehensive schools: the former generally teaching fewer modular subjects than the latter. Nonetheless, schools with mixed and lower ability pupils reported a number of benefits to teaching modular GCSEs compared with linear ones. These included greater motivation and engagement following success in early exams and the spreading of the workload for pupils who, for various reasons not necessarily related to ability, tend to underperform in terminal examinations. Before the interviews were completed but, more importantly, before the modular GCSEs had time to bed in, the government announced that all GCSEs would revert to linear assessment from 2012. Nonetheless, with A Level Reform in progress and the school leaving age set to rise to 18, some of the findings of this study could still prove useful.

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