Sir Kevan Collins reflects on changes to the GCSE system.
The dust has just begun to settle on this year’s GCSE results. Somewhat predictably the focus has been on the new grading system and the tougher exams: the biggest overhaul of GCSEs in a generation. Conceived by Michael Gove, the reforms were designed to make the exams more challenging and to allow greater differentiation between the highest attaining pupils. This, at least, seems to have been achieved.
Instead of an A or A*, there are now three top grades—a 7, 8 or a 9. We know that just 2,000 pupils—around 0.4 per cent of the cohort—in England scored a top grade 9 in English, English literature and maths.
But while it is right to identify and recognise the very highest attaining students, we mustn’t forget the greater purpose of GCSEs: to equip as many young people as possible with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. Leaving school with good GCSEs in English and maths is a prerequisite for progressing into a good quality job, apprenticeship or further education. Yet too many of our young people do not make the grade and, as a result, risk social and economic exclusion.
Under the new grading system, where a 4 is equivalent to the old grade C and a 5 is described as a “good C,” there is a danger that the focus is taken off those students at the lower end of the attainment spectrum, for whom there is now less differentiation than before. In place of the old D, E, F and G grades, there are just three grades: 3, 2 and 1. And the harsh reality persists: employers—once they start to understand how the system works—are likely to see anything below a 4 as not good enough.
But the bigger problem, one which is not new this year but which requires urgent attention, is that falling into this group and failing to get a “good pass” at GCSE isn’t just determined by what a young person knows. It also depends on where the grade boundaries are set each year. A fixed percentage of grades are allocated to the top, and likewise the bottom. This means that just as only a certain number of pupils can get the very best grades—this year the same proportion got 9s, 8s or 7s as would have got A* or As last year—a certain number have to get the lowest grades. In recent years, the grade boundaries have been set so that around a third of the cohort will not pass.
If we really want GCSEs to set young people up for life, then judging them on how they compare to others in their own particular year—rather than their own knowledge and understanding of a topic—seems intrinsically unfair.
It is perhaps telling that the pass mark for this year’s upper tier maths paper was just 18 per cent. While many have taken this as a sign that the new exams are tougher, it presents a real challenge in supporting those 16 year-olds who did not make the grade.
Since 2014, it has been compulsory for this group to study towards these qualifications for another two years. The vast majority will not get their pass grade by the time they are 18: in 2016 just 22 per cent percent who failed maths or English at 16 went on to achieve a C grade in the two years afterwards. It is clear that simply keeping these young people in compulsory education for another year and hoping that will do the trick is not enough. And, with the progression rates so depressingly small, there is a serious danger that we are keeping a third of young people in education only to brand them a failure yet again.
These students are disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged homes. Last year, over half of those eligible for free school meals had not achieved the expected level in English and maths by 19. That’s one in two young people from low-income households who are automatically denied access to secure and well-paid careers (including apprenticeships), as well as further study. This is not just a personal tragedy for the individual; it’s a waste of talent on a national scale and a huge barrier to improving social mobility.
So in the post mortem of this year’s GCSE results, we must not lose our focus on the one-third of pupils who didn’t make the grade. They need better teaching in the basics, grounded in the best available evidence of “what works.” But they also need an exam system that gives all young people the opportunities they deserve.
Sir Kevan Collins is Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation
This blog originally appeared on Prospect.