Amanda Spielman of Ofsted warns about impact of new GCSEs

So apparently, HM Chief Inspector of Education, Amanda Spielman, was very surprized that the schools geared towards the GCSE’s and the whole KS3, and even KS2 to some extent, were focused on target GCSE marks. This doesn’t surprize me at all. Because in the absence of a national curriculum, and a national system of tracking progress, schools were left with little choice. So the majority decided to train pupils according to the GCSE’s… because there is no other option left. Instead of GCSE’s testing the student’s level of knowledge (presumably on a pre-determined curriculum), it is now the other way around. There is no curriculum, but there is a test at teh end of the KS3. Results of this test matter. So, the test has become the curriculum itself. Very sad, very unfair, and very very bad for raising our next generations based on their propsect of success in an ever changing test. Very depressing.


GCSE Boundaries

And then there is this: Once the GCSE test is taken and the exams are graded, then they take the top 5% and award them a 9. Then they will go down the list, and award 8, 7 and 6 etc., as seen on the chart above. Thus, what grade you will achieve will depend on the overall performance of your year group.

More detailed information about this at:

What is my problem?


In September 2013, the government urged the UK schools to stop using the National Curriculum Levels. This system of tracking progress in schools was not replaced by anything else, hoping that this would give the schools more freedom in choosing not only their curriculum but also how they would attain the educational goals at the end of the secondary school. It also represents an effort in setting individualized achievement targets tailored for the unique skills and talents of each child. The withdrawal of the National Curriculum Levels was part of an overhaul of the whole education system: the GCSE assessment itself begun to go through major changes around the same time.

In the absence of the levels, schools were urged to find alternative ways of measuring progress. Progress has become the major goal of education as opposed to reaching national targets that every student pursued. This, in a way, was the only option since schools could choose different curriculums, it was no longer possible to test the students against a pre-determined set of targets.

I will not go into the GCSE’s themselves, because many GCSE subject assessments are still in the process of being replaced with their “new” versions.  The subject of measuring progress is my main concern here and it is very complicated and quite incomprehensible.  So, I began to research this subject hoping that I would be able to answer a few simple questions for my daughter and myself. Unfortunately, almost a year later, I still do not understand many essential aspects. However, I will provide a summary of what I managed to gather so far, and provide all the documents I found useful (see all other posts on this blog). I also had several discussions with teachers, school administrators, and other parents, which contributed to my understanding.


GCSE’s are still changing and being replaced with their new versions. It appears that even the “new” GCSE’s will probably change a bit more in the next few years, as they are being adjusted constantly. But nonetheless, because the National Curriculum Levels are no longer used, many schools adopted a variety of techniques. These include (but probably not limited to):

  • SOLO Taxonomy Grids
  • Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • Use of mastery statements
  • Marking grids of objectives related to new national curriculum in stages
  • Working backwards from GCSE – (flightpaths method):

Among these, I am concentrating on the last one, as this is the one I am dealing with in our school. If you are interested in the others, the original document that describes them all is:

The flight paths method basically includes two elements:

  1. A beginning point: A number of criteria including YR6 SATs scores, primary school teacher’s personal assessments, sometimes a test given by the secondary school upon arrival in September to verify the SATs (not all schools do this), and a variety of other demographic data including gender, family income, postcode etc., are entered into an algorithm. I am yet to find what this algorithm is and who wrote this code that is so essential in shaping the educational experiences of so many pupils, but from what I understand schools choose their own. 4Matrix is an example and is marketed to schools. Most schools don’t seem to be transparent about which algorithm they use to predict targets.
  2. An end point: The algorithm produces a projection of how this student will perform in the future, and predicts what score he/she will get from the GCSEs. Then, draws a trajectory between the knowledge level of that child at the beginning of year 7 (beginning point), and where they will be when they take their GCSEs (end point). The algorithm does this for all the subjects (even though SATs are only taken on English and Math) including art, technology and design, ICT, geography, even PE and RE. From that point on, the child is assessed according to where they need to be in order to attain the targeted GCSE score the algorithm predicted they would get. This assessment can only affirm three conditions: below the projected path, secure on the projected path, or exceeding the projected path. In this system, being on the projected path is considered success, being below is an indication that more effort is needed (and is rare and alarming), and exceeding is also a rather rare achievement.

Here is an example:

A student was put on a flightpath of 7 based on their KS2 score. Meaning, that for this particular subject, let’s call it Maths, this student (let’s call her a “she”) is expected to get a 7 when they take the GCSEs at the end of year 11. If she exceeds expectations, she might get an 8, if she falls below her expected level, she might get a 6.

Her report card at year 7 will show a letter E (exceeding), S (secure), or W (working towards) in her “maths” column. Her teacher would assess her performance based on the assumption that if she took the GCSE Math test now (in year 7) she would get a 4, in year 8 she would score 5, in year 9 would score 6 etc. Therefore, if this student would continue to be S (secure) on this flightpath, she would score a 7 on her math GCSEs when she is a 16 years old year 11 student. The school, on the other hand, would be able to demonstrate progress from a 4 to 7 over these years, and meet the criteria for providing the appropriate education for the student to progress.

I would like to remind that the “new” Math and English GCSEs are being tested for the first time in 2017, and we actually have no idea how anyone will perform on them, and thus the whole supposition that the year 7 student here has been assessed based on her supposed performance on a test that nobody has ever taken before is quite worrisome.

More obvious and fundamental problem is that, this student will be told that securing a 7 is considered success, which, objectively is. 7 is an A in the previous GCSE grading system. However, let’s imagine another student. He has a flightpath of 5 based on his KS2 score. Let’s say that he was given a flightpath of 5 in Geography, based on his SATs performance in English when he was 10 years old. Throughout KS3, five long years, he will see an S next to his Geography subject, and will securely follow his flightpath, and make the progress expected from him, while the school will demonstrate that he has progressed, and he will score 5 in his GCSEs. Well, 5 is not a great score at all, objectively… but this student was geared towards this 5 for five long years. If his geography flightpath is a 5, it is probably because his KS2 SATs results in English were not very good. Therefore, his flightpaths on English, History, and a variety of other English based projections would also be quite low.

Schools deny this, but I am not convinced that this is not potentially setting low targets for students, and fail to push them to advance their targets. The school “expects” the child to meet this quite static target, and considers the attainment of this path a success.  I also am not convinced that this is creating an illusion for the student and perhaps the parents and leads them to think that this student is performing well. In some schools, because flightpaths leading up to low targets such as 4 or 5 obviously look worse than flightpaths leading to 9, 8 or 7, they were named (!) after famous historical persons to shroud their actual implications. A child who is on a “Shakespeare” path might potentially find out that they have been working towards a 4 score on Chemistry GCSEs.

In our school, I was told that there were no opportunities to change a flightpath, which is based firmly on a set of criteria from KS2. The school refuses to tell me what exactly these were, and what data was fed into the “algorithm” that produced my daughter’s flightpaths. I understand that this system seeks to achieve greater freedom for schools with their curriculums and assessments, and wants to encourage progress. It was changed because previously there was a pass level and the school’s success was based on the number of students that passed. Thus, the schools and teachers worked harder with the students that were in the middle range that would benefit with extra work and attention to reach that “pass” … this left the high achievers and the ones that were well below the middle range out. This new system aims to provide a certain amount of progress for everyone. It might be great if you like your “target” but not quite if you don’t. Either way, it feels like a five year long test prep, rather than actual learning. Because your progress is always measured against this ultimate test you will eventually take. Evidently, I believe this too is a system that is seriously flawed and will ultimately fail to achieve its desired objectives.

Beyond Levels: alternative assessment approaches developed by teaching schools

Shortly after the National Levels system was abandoned, National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) did some research to see how schools were assessing progress. Approaches of 34 schools were studied and the findings are in this report.

In summary, all schools developed some form of assessment tool to support and record “individual progress” and “attainment.” Here are the main assessment tools adopted by this sample of schools:

  • SOLO Taxonomy Grids
  • Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • Use of mastery statements
  • Marking grids of objectives related to new national curriculum in stages
  • Working backwards from GCSE – (flightpaths method):
    • Since this is the method I am researching, I will include the quote from the attached text that describes it: “Although the details of revised GCSE examinations are still unknown, some schools
      decided that using highest level expectations of success at GCSE could be used to form expectations from Year 7 upwards. For several secondary lead schools the project was seen as an opportunity to create consistency and coherence across all year groups. Dissatisfaction with the lack of connection between national curriculum levels and GCSE grades meant that an alternative approach that allowed for bespoke subject specific tracking and feedback was a helpful prospect. Shotton Hall TSA developed tracking grids with a points system for every subject in the curriculum. They aim to review this next term and share findings on their website
      before trialling this further with other schools.
      George Abbot TSA likewise considered the learning trajectory across the secondary school:
      ‘[We] created a series of attainment statements – “beginning, sometimes,
      clearly & consistently, confidently, expertly & impressively” – and have loosely tied these to GCSE grades. These are – in many cases – the statements used by our exam board at GCSE, and so it allows students to peg themselves against GCSE gradings right from Year 7.’
      However, some colleagues were concerned that especially where children were in special provision, to start talking with students about current and predicted GCSE grades from year 7 may be demotivating.
      See links to the following schools in appendix B: Shotton Hall TSA, Alban TSA, Alliance for Learning, Bishop Challoner TSA, George Abbot TSA, Salop TSA

Beyond Levels: alternative assessment approaches developed by teaching schools

The death of levels

Here is a quote from this site (sums up my worries):
“The DfE tells us that: ‘Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression…. Ofsted’s inspections will be informed by whatever pupil tracking data schools choose to keep. Schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests.’
This really is extraordinary. Internal assessment devised by the school? Ofsted to use the system that the school devises? That’s a terrifying amount of freedom. That said, many are the schools that will continue to use something like levels, or the serving suggestion promised later on in the release. Whenever the DfE releases ‘best practice’ the implicit wink to schools will be ‘If you don’t use this, be ready to explain why your system is better.'”

Flightpaths, assessment objectives and GCSE history

This blog entry is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the problematic aspects of this problem.  Progress measurement principles, assessment objectives, and their shortfalls are explained very well……/creating-flight-paths-to-repl…

KS2 testing, SATS and the flightpath algorithm

Below is a link to a website that explains the role played by the KS2 testing plays in predicting the GCSE scores to be targeted. However, I believe that the SATS are not the only criteria included in the algorithm that produces the flight path targets.

I am still trying to find the specifics of the algorithm that produces the GCSE targets and the flightpaths, but my child’s school (KS3 coordinator) told me that the algorithm that our school uses includes not only SATS scores, but also teacher’s opinion from KS2, as well as demographic data such as gender, family income level, disabilities etc.…/rethinking-target-setting-flig…/

How do the GCSE boundaries align

Wondered how the new GCSE boundaries aligned?

This shows how challenging it is, but the real question is how the schools prepare the students to meet this challenge. 

In other words, if the mark boundaries are so strict and the nuance is so small, how confident can we be that we have projected the GCSE mark that a student will acquire based on this student’s performance during the last year of primary school? 


The origin of the flight paths system

This all started when the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, declared the government’s plans about the future of education in the UK:  ‘as part of our reforms to the national curriculum, the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed. It will not be replaced.’ Link to the relevant document is here:

As admitted in this document, while the goal was to give more freedom to schools about determining their curriculum and tracking progress, it created a very confusing situation for the school administrators, teachers, parents and the students.

Four years later, there are a variety of approaches adopted by schools, but tracking progress towards ever changing GCSE’s has been hard and confusing to say the least, and as a parent, I still find it very secretive, enigmatic and mystifying.