Exams watchdog Ofqual has announced plans to toughen up GCSE examinations in four key subjects; maths, English literature, history and geography. The move comes after claims that GCSEs are getting too easy and teachers are simply training pupils to jump through examination hoops, rather than really taking students through the whole syllabus. With exam results improving every year, many fear that teaching to the test is taking over in UK schools and Ofqual claims that the new requirements will make it more difficult for schools to focus only on the specific parts of the curriculum necessary to pass the examination.

In one example, the Department for Education pointed out that almost all the questions on one common GCSE English literature paper focussed on just three novels, allowing students to study just those books over their two year course and still emerge with excellent grades. If the syllabus is supposed to cover other genres or time periods, Ofqual argues, students ought to be studying them – whether they come up in the exam or not.

But some fear that just making the exams even harder is not the way forward. One dedicated GCSE maths tutor from London, who helps prepare individual students for the exam, said “the GCSE maths paper is hard enough already. If they want to tinker with the paper, it would be much more useful to include more practical maths for application in everyday circumstances as the SAT papers do…I don’t think that just adding harder and harder topics or a wider range of topics is going to help prepare students for professional life”. Many fear a risk that changes to exams and syllabuses are being carried out for the sake of appearances and manipulating the figures, rather than with the students’ educational needs in mind.
Others have raised concerns that it is illogical and unfair to raise the difficulty level of an arbitrary selection of subjects whilst leaving others as they are. This could prejudice candidates against choosing geography and history, which are optional subjects at GCSE, or lead to them gaining a less impressive roster of grades than those doing different subjects.

The changes come after several recent undercover operations by the Daily Telegraph, which showed chief examiners explaining to teachers at an examination conference how they could avoid teaching a whole chunk of the syllabus by tailoring lessons to cover only the bare essentials necessary for the actual exam. The report also yielded footage of an Edexcel chief examiner assuring an undercover journalist that the company’s geography GCSE was less challenging than that of other exam boards.

To truly fix the ailing UK examination system, which is suffering from allegations of ever-increasing simplicity, league table obsession and teaching to the test, it will surely take more than a few quick changes to a select number of subject papers.