WISERD GCSE Series – Part 1: Should all GCSE students be assessed the same way?

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

In the first of a series of blogs about students’ perspectives on the fairness of GCSEs, Dr Rhian Barrance outlines the recent reforms to GCSEs across England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and considers students’ views on linear and modular courses.

Across England, Northern Ireland and Wales, many 16-year-olds are awaiting the release of their GCSE results this Thursday. This year, for the first time, students in England will receive results for some subjects using the new (9-1) grading system, while students in Northern Ireland and Wales will continue to have their papers graded using the existing A*-U system. This may be the first indication for many that there are differences between the GCSE assessment systems in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. However, the reality is that GCSEs have been becoming increasingly different qualifications across the three countries over the last five years.

Until 2013, GCSEs were jointly controlled by qualification regulators in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, with rules in place to ensure they were assessed in the same way in each country. However, disagreements regarding the ways in which GCSEs should be assessed led to the end of three-country regulation in 2013. There are now significant differences in GCSE assessment in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

England’s approach has been to remove controlled assessment from most subjects and to use linear courses across the board. This means that students are assessed by examinations only and wholly at the end of their course. In contrast, in Northern Ireland and Wales, controlled assessment and modular courses are still used for some subjects. For these subjects, the GCSE is split into different units and students can be assessed either at the end of the module or entirely at the end of the course (in a linear course).


Linear courseExample modular course

Linear course                                                Example modular course


Within a modular course, assessment can be either by examination or controlled assessment. These differ substantially: while examinations use unseen questions, take place in silence and are completed within one sitting, for controlled assessments students are given the task in advance, and are permitted time to prepare.

Thus, the experiences of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to vary considerably. However, there is very little research that asks students about their views and experiences of different course types, and they have been left out of the debate on the most recent reforms in the UK.

My recent research sought to identify the views of young people in Northern Ireland and Wales on these issues. It used focus groups and a questionnaire survey with 1,600 GCSE students (aged 15-16) to find out what young people thought about the ways that GCSEs are assessed.

As shown in Figure 1 below, students in both countries were supportive of modular courses, with most students opting either for modular courses to be used across the board, or for a mixture of modular and linear courses.


Figure 1

Students' views on the most suitable course structure for GCSEs

Students’ views on the most suitable course structure for GCSEs


In their responses, students were able to reflect in sophisticated ways on how course structure affected learning. They indicated that they found it easier to learn when the course was divided into modules, and the focus of a module enabled them to develop a better idea of their progress and a strong understanding of a topic (Male student, NI).

In contrast, the minority who preferred linear courses tended to do so because they found constant assessment stressful, and because they felt they performed better when they had completed the entire course, as this enabled them to make connections between different elements of the subject.

However, regardless of which course structure they preferred themselves, the majority of students indicated that more flexibility was better for students overall, because ‘everyone learns differently’ (Female student, Wales). They suggested that the difference between students in terms of their preferences and abilities means that a variety of options should be available to all. They felt that their current situation – in which some students have the option of modular courses, and others have to follow linear ones – was unfair.

The idea of an assessment system whereby students can receive the same qualification via different routes may raise cause for alarm. It is true that too much variation can be problematic, leading to difficulties in comparing the grades of different students. However, an assessment is also unfair if students are not given opportunities to show what they know and what they can do. Not all students will be able to do this in the same way, and so a certain amount of flexibility is essential if we want to be confident that the grades students receive this week are based on the best performance of which they are capable.