This bulletin is about changes to GCSE assessment and to the whole edifice of qualifications in the UK. Technical details are given, and suggestions made about how to respond

Controlled assessment at GCSE
Controlled assessment is replacing GCSE coursework. The system allows students to produce extended personal responses to areas of their learning. Courses incorporating controlled assessment started teaching for most subjects in September 2009. New arrangements for English, English literature, and information and communication technology wait another year, and science with controlled assessment starts teaching in 2011.

In controlled assessment you are able to choose between three levels of control (limited, medium and high) at three stages (setting, taking and marking of tasks). Control is viewed from the examination boards’ perspective.

High control in task setting means the board sets tasks; medium means teachers set tasks with guidance from the board; and low control means teachers set tasks. High control in task taking means students are strictly supervised; medium means students perform under informal supervision; and low control means students can work without supervision, eg guided by teachers, helping one another, in or outside where lessons normally take place, using additional resources. High control in task marking means the board does it; medium means teachers’ marking is moderated by the board.

There will be no common publication date for tasks, which will generally be issued a year in advance, usually by secure extranet. Hard copies will also be distributed at teachers’ meetings.

Conventional security measures and checks apply. Students should not have access to controlled assessment tasks in advance of the specified period. Students will have to keep a research diary or folder to record their contacts with and feedback from teachers, along with their research, planning, ways of working, resources, etc.

Ultimately each student has to produce an individual response and show where they have made contributions to joint activities. Each has to sign a Candidate Record Form (CRF) to confirm the work is her/his own, and a teacher countersigns it. Centres have to record marks of zero if authenticity of a student’s work cannot be confirmed.

Confidence in the new arrangements depends chiefly on colleagues’ sharing their expertise, concerns and ideas. If there isn’t already a forum, an obvious step is to set up a working group with subject representatives to investigate implications and make proposals. This may be an excellent opportunity to involve students in discussion about their learning and new ways of working. You can facilitate sharing of:

  • past experience of equivalents to controlled assessment
  • ways of enabling students to develop independence and sustained working, eg learning how to carry out their own projects in key stage 3
  • ways of enabling students to keep project diaries or commentaries
  • ways of organising and moderating marking
  • ways of developing portfolios of assessed work, eg as exemplars for students to use in future years
  • suggestions for administrative arrangements, eg concerning security.

Examples of new assessments are available via the QCDA website (, and further information is available via your exam boards.

Qualifications and Credits Framework
Changes on a much broader front are under way in the guise of a new Qualifications and Credits Framework (QCF). The government’s concept is that every form of accreditation should be defined so that transfer and accumulation of credits can be flexibly managed by providers as well as learners. The framework’s main components are summarised below.

Every qualification will be made up of units. Each unit presents a title, level, and credit value, and sets out coherent, explicit learning outcomes and assessment criteria. Every qualification states:

  • the subject matter or content of the qualification
  • the degree of difficulty or level of the qualification (from entry level to level 8; eg GCSE A*-C is level 2, Advanced level is level 3, and PhD level 8)
  • the size or value of the qualification (awards are 1 to 12 credits, certificates 13 to 36 credits, and diplomas 37 credits or more).

One credit represents 10 hours’ learning, according to a common British and European estimate. Broadly, there are two types of unit. Shared units are available to all awarding organisations, and so promote the flexibility necessary to realise the QCF’s core purpose, which is credit accumulation within a single system and transfer of units across disciplines, institutions, and periods of learning. Restricted units are available to specified awarding organisations only. Currently there are about 6,000 shared and 3,000 restricted units on the QCF.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) decides what post-19 learning is funded. The bodies responsible for formulating and reviewing occupational standards for specific sectors across the UK, and for supporting the development of units and qualifications based on these standards, are sector skills councils (SSCs). Each SSC is an employer-led, independent organisation and is licensed by government. Standards setting bodies (SSBs) and sector lead bodies (SLBs) are also key players in the United Kingdom Vocational Qualifications Reform Programme (UKVQRP).

The first and only evaluation of QCF’s progress was published in 2007 (QCA/2007/3380). QCDA’s website carries headline case studies, for example, indicating interesting developments with the Institute of Motor Industry and Institute of Leadership and Management. The LSC’s report of September 2009 states ‘The QCF is in its very early stages.’

You can use your usual methods to keep in touch with governmental and local plans and projects. Ask questions, update your understanding, and network via your contacts with:

  • users of qualifications, ie learners, education institutions and employers
  • policy makers
  • partners and other education providers you work with
  • qualifications agencies
  • organisations contracted to devise, test and evaluate education and assessment structures and products.

You will be striking a balance between finding out facts to inform decision-making and taking a critical stance to try to influence evolving policy.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Dr John Blanchard is an independent consultant and author of Teaching, Learning and Assessment (2009, Open University Press)