The EdExcel C3 debacle: initial thoughts

These are my barely-edited, initial thoughts on today's controversial EdExcel Core 3 paper. Nothing is meant as an attack on anyone - except, of course, for Mr Gove, who must be used to it by now.

UPDATED June 14: The legendary Arsey at TSR has worked solutions for the paper here. There were a few unusual questions, and I rate it as a tough paper that required some thought beyond mechanically applying formulas - which is one of the things C3 is meant to test. At the same time, there were several questions that should have been almost automatic for a candidate with a realistic hope of doing well in the exam.

Assuming the grade boundaries are adjusted, I don't think there's much hope for the free-resit brigade. (Update ends)

UPDATED again, June 14, evening: I've now seen the original, compromised paper. Mark for mark, there's no contest; the original paper was far, far less demanding than the replacement paper. However, mark-for-mark isn't the right comparison: the right comparison is how hard it is to achieve each grade.

The grade boundaries for the original paper would have been much higher than they will be for the replacement paper. It could well turn out to have been 'easier' to get an A on the replacement paper than the original - until the grade boundaries are decided, it's impossible to say. (Update ends)

I’ve not yet seen the full C3 paper, but I’ve seen some of the questions, including the “why can’t Kate get a zoom lens?” one. I have some thoughts:

  • Some students seem to be genuinely devastated by this paper. I suspect there’s also a bandwagon effect; for many people, this was an extremely high-stakes exam with the potential to change their future. I feel sorry for students who feel like the system has screwed them over, and wish it hadn’t happened.
  • The questions I’ve seen were, in my opinion, tough. Not impossible, not unfair, but tough. I’d be very interested to see the full paper to form a proper judgement on the balance and style of the exam.
  • The lost papers debacle: careless, very careless. For all EdExcel’s protests, I find it a bit unlikely that the substitute paper was subject to the same level of scrutiny as the original. Around 60 students sat the ‘wrong’ exam, out of around 35,000; I find it hard to believe that there was cheating involved.
  • Speaking to some of my students, I gather some of the questions were asked oddly. This will have disadvantaged students who relied on rote learning rather than reading and understanding. Mr Gove will be LIVID.
  • The final question did involve — for three marks — knowing that distance = speed $\times$ time. Technically, that’s not in the specification. Neither is knowing there are 60 minutes in an hour; it’s not unreasonable to expect an A-level maths student to know either of those facts.
  • The grade boundaries have historically changed from one exam to the next to reflect the difficulty of exams. If, as seems likely, scores on this paper are lower than expected, the UMS conversion will be adjusted to account for that. That said, it’s a source of doubt — and a blow to the confidence — that will make for a very uncomfortable summer for many students.
  • I’ve seen some amusing memes, and I’ve seen a lot of what can only be called entitled whining. I’ve seen someone claim a 14-mark question cost them the chance of getting more than 20/75. Frankly, I think trigonometry is the least of their problems.
  • One last criticism about balance, based on what I’ve seen so far: the two trigonometry questions were both from what I'd consider the hard end of the spectrum. That would appear to be poor practice, although I can't say it would make for an unfair paper on its own.
  • Students who have done poorly in this exam will not currently be able to resit until next summer. This is a ludicrous state of affairs, and there's a petition to resurrect the January exam diet here.

Overall, my suspicion is that there’s an element of EdExcel cock-up, an element of teenage melodrama, and an element of high-stakes exams being a sodding ridiculous way to assess whether someone’s a good mathematician. I hope it all comes out in the wash.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


14 comments on “The EdExcel C3 debacle: initial thoughts

  • Dave Gale

    I wonder, in other situations where replacement exams have to be used (any exam board), how many centres end up using the original paper. I’d imagine it’s a common mistake or am I being too lenient?
    I happen to think that Edexcel shouldn’t have ‘lost’ the papers but what choice did they have but to replace them?

    As for the difficulty: Basically I agree with your very last paragraph.

    I understand the concerns, but students that can only answer maths questions in format that they are pretty familiar with (ie very familiar with) should be tested in unusual circumstances. I haven’t seen the questions and perhaps I’m being harsh, but there’s a message here for teachers: Don’t rely too heavily on bashing through all the past papers as the best form of practise.

    • Dave Gale

      4 centres who used the wrong paper.
      Is that Edexcel’s fault or the centres’ fault?

  • CathB

    I don’t agree about the “unlikely that the replacement was subject to the same level of scrutiny”. Exam boards always have papers in reserve – it’s standard policy as leaks can always happen, either through exam board incompetence or, much more commonly, things going awry at centres. They’d already have set next summer’s, so if they didn’t have an official spare, chances are they’d have brought that one forwards.

    Why do you find it ludicrous that students can’t resit until next summer? It’s always been the case for some subjects (not everything was offered in January). Although I understand someone who’s messed up will wish it was otherwise, I don’t think it would be possible to offer resit opportunities without allowing people to do modules early, which then perpetuates the whole modularisation issue.

    • Colin

      Thanks for your comment, Cath.

      I think students should be allowed to sit the modules as soon as they’re ready to. There’s quite enough artificial pressure on students as it is without adding to it by making high-stakes exams even higher-stakes. (I don’t like exams. I always did well in them, but they’re a lousy way of telling a good mathematician from a poor one; good mathematicians are generally good at discussing problems in groups and persisting with them, neither of which is allowed in a short exam).

      I don’t think that modularisation (done right) is a bad thing at all, although I’m not sure modularisation is currently done right. (If anything, the C3 paper was an example of modularisation done right: students who remembered their trig rules from C2 and straight line geometry from C1 were at an advantage).

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