Busting another myth: anything lower than GCSE C is a fail

Janet Downs's picture
‘Fine schools for students who fail GCSE Maths and English’

Policy Exchange press release, 25 August 2015

You would think from the headline that Policy Exchange was suggesting fining schools for every pupil judged U in GCSE Maths and English because U (or X) is a fail according to Government Data. You would be wrong. The think-tank is suggesting schools pay a £500 levy for every pupils who doesn’t reach Grade C – it makes that clear further down the article.
It would appear, then, that not reaching Grade C is a ‘fail’.

Unfortunately this isn’t new. For several years politicians, the media and employers have divided GCSE grades into ‘good’ grades (Grade C or better) and other grades (Grades D-G) which are not ‘good’. This implies these lower grades are ‘bad’, ‘worthless’ and ‘poor’. They are fails.

But GCSEs Grades D-G are not fails. They show achievement at Level One. According to the House of Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Adult Literacy and Numeracy report, Level 1 literacy and numeracy skills equate ‘to a D to G grade in GCSEs, and is judged to be the level of skill needed for adults to function effectively in society.’

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was a member of the BIS Committee for some time during the last Parliament but she seems not to have read her Committee’s report. In the scramble for results, only GCSE C and above count. The Education and Adoption Bill passing through Parliament describes a new school category – ones that are ‘coasting’. Coasting secondary schools are those where ‘in 2014 and 2015 fewer than 60% of children achieve 5 A* to C including English and mathematics and they are below the median level of expected progress and in 2016 they fall below a level set against the new progress 8’.

In other words, secondary schools where fewer than 60% achieve 5 Level 2 exams including English and maths will be regarded as ‘coasting’ if progress falls below the median. They are then likely to be subject to intervention (ie academy conversion). No value at all is placed on exams passed at Level 1 despite this standard being regarded as foundation level. And pupils who don’t achieve GCSE C in Maths and English are required to keep on studying the two courses until they reach GCSE C.

The Government and others are fixated on GCSE C. Yet, as the BIS Committee pointed out, there are other ways to improve literacy and numeracy than repeating the GCSE path. The Committee recommended the Government move away from its obsession with linear assessment and be more flexible. Providing training in contextual skills which match literacy and numeracy with particular jobs and practising functional skills, as happens in the Army, could be more effective. The Committee wasn’t convinced GCSE C should be the gold standard.

But, as we’ve seen, anything less than a GCSE C is perceived as having no value. Getting less than a C in English and maths is viewed as failing to ‘master’ these core subjects. But Grades D-G show a pupil has sufficient proficiency to be at Level 1 and to function in the modern world. To describe this level as failure is a slight to young people on the bottom rung of the performance ladder and to those who have taught them. It reduces the value of all Level 1 certificates to zero. And it risks downplaying these pupils’ achievement to such an extent it will create a perverse incentive for schools to deter pupils unlikely to reach Level 2. Yet these pupils are as deserving of education as those who will sail past the Grade C threshold. Neither they nor their teachers should be regarded as having ‘failed’.

This myth doesn't appear in The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the myths, exploring the evidence, an updated and extended version of our e-book School Myths: And the Evidence that Blows them Apart (no longer available), which will be published by Routledge on 27 November 2015.

UPDATE 5 September 2015 09.33 TES reports new research by Professor Peter Urwin, professor of applied economics at the University of Westminster, which claims earlier research into the value of lower level vocational qualifications was based on 'more limited data' and had underestimated the returns from FE learning at level 2 and below'. Note the description 'Level 2 and below'. This confirms that Level 1 courses DO have value.
A BIS spokesperson told TES: “We welcome the analysis by Peter Urwin. The research highlights the importance of low-level qualifications to improving learners’ life chances, social mobility and productivity for the wider economy.”
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 02/09/2015 - 16:57

Quite so Janet. This is how I put it in,'Learning Matters'.

2.2 The educational and social consequences of ‘failure by definition’

If a school is defined as failing for not getting pupils to achieve a C grade in English and maths, what does this say for the pupils that find themselves in this shameful category that is causing the failure of their school and the negative labelling of their communities? The failure label will not be new to most of those involved. The whole of the English education system is now structured with threshold ‘Levels’ that all children, regardless of cognitive ability, are ‘expected’ to achieve from the age of three. In Y6, at the close of the primary phase of education the ‘expected’ attainment in the compulsory SATs exams is Level 4. As with secondary schools and GCSEs five years later, primary schools are designated as failing if they do not achieve the latest arbitrary target for the proportion of pupils ‘expected’ to achieve L4. A persistent proportion of children, especially in poor areas, fall into this failure category regardless of how obedient they are, however much they strive and how many hours, days and months of drilling and revision they have been subject to, only to find themselves on the same relentless treadmill towards GCSE ‘failure’ in their new secondary school.

mistemina's picture
Thu, 03/09/2015 - 10:47

In Bucks (Fully 11+ selective county), there is no hope of our Secondary Moderns being able to pay any fines.
Our Secondary Moderns are cash strapped already, because they already have to take in the failed, demotivated children (with demotivated parents), we have to carry almost all SEN and traditionally underachieving puopil cohorts.
Bucks will have children that do not achieve a 'c' grade; this is institutional.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 03/09/2015 - 11:59

John - the same applies in Lincolnshire, Kent and other selective counties. The schools which have very few previously high-attaining pupils (because they've been creamed off to attend grammars) and a large proportion of previously low-attaining pupils are bound to have a larger proportion of pupils not achieving a C. It's hardly very motivating to be told that pupils who don't get a C are failing and, by extension, those who teach them. This is going to reduce the likelihood of teachers wanting to take on headships in such schools (could be career suicide) or teachers even wanting to teach in them.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/09/2015 - 08:32

TES reports new research which claims earlier research (ie that used by Wolf in her report re vocational qualifications) was 'based on more limited data' and had “underestimated the returns from FE learning at level 2 and below”. For more info see update above.

Wendy's picture
Thu, 09/03/2017 - 10:31

Our son had a gcse U he refused to resit it but I said look try again you may even scrape a G well no I won't he said same in maths a solid D he thought but he had G he was mortified but I said you have resit chance - he has struggled in school with writing it has made him give up almost - his science resit came through yesterday - he said bin it I've failed again but I opened it - a G - I was thrilled for him he said really I scraped through - yes I replied - well done - it's still a PASS and that's all that's matters and he detests science but he did it for himself and that's what matters

Ian Lambert's picture
Tue, 24/04/2018 - 11:49

Well done Wendy, having taught non-selective students all my teaching life and had to combat the negativity that surrounds this pass/fail culture (which when I taught at a selective school after I retired still had an extremely negative effect on C grade students) you have done so well to bolster  your son's confidence.

Ian Lambert's picture
Tue, 24/04/2018 - 10:56

The BBC recently reported that grade D below was a fail - despite my complaining twice they insisted that the government say this a fail and quoted a directive. What nobody appears to acknowledge is that grades are all based on a standard deviation population distribution curve so unless they place the C grade to the extreme left of the curve there will always be 50% of the population of any particular year D and below!

Ian Lambert's picture
Tue, 24/04/2018 - 11:30

The reply from the BBC

Dear Mr Lambert

Reference CAS-4869391-W2CYLJ

Many thanks for contacting us again about BBC Breakfast on 26 March.

The BBC Breakfast Maths Challenge is a series of reports and features intended to celebrate the subject and encourage a positive attitude towards it.

One of our presenters and two reporters are taking their Maths GSCE this summer to help illustrate what students are experiencing and encourage adult involvement. The audience can get involved with a series of puzzles and there is a website with links to revision aids and learning tools.

So it’s disappointing to receive a complaint about how we’ve reported something which has the opposite intended affect. We accept ‘fail’ is a term which should be used carefully, but the government says pupils who don’t achieve a standard pass need to keep re-sitting until they achieve C/4 or above if they’re continuing in vocational training or studying. So the word ‘fail’ is appropriate in that context. Below a C/4 is considered a fail because that is the requirement employers/ 6th forms/ Universities set as a pass.

The Department for Education (England) says: “Students must study maths and/or English as part of their programme in each academic year. This applies to students aged 16 to 18 and 19 to 25 with an education, health and care (EHC) plan who do not hold a GCSE grade 9 to 4, A* to C (a standard pass grade) or equivalent qualification in these subjects. This applies to students doing a programme of 150 hours or more, which started on or after 1 August 2014. This requirement is a condition of funding”.

If you are still dissatisfied, you can contact the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU is stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process. Details of the BBC complaints process are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint/ where you can read the BBC’s full complaints framework.

If you wish to contact the ECU please write to it directly within 20 working days of receiving this reply. Please explain to it why you believe there may have been a potential breach of standards or other significant issue for it to investigate. You can email ecu@bbc.co.uk, or write to: Executive Complaints Unit, BBC, Broadcast Centre, London W12 7TQ. Please include the case reference number we have provided in this reply.

Thank you once again for getting in touch.

Kind regards

Anna Sweeney

BBC Complaints Team

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 24/04/2018 - 12:20

Thanks Ian.  It's disappointing that it's become 'appropriate' to say anything less than a C/4 is a 'fail'.  It isn't.   But if the gov't thinks it is, then it should have the courage of its (false) convictions and scrap all grades below C/4 altogether.  That would create uproar, of course, and rightly so, with around 50% officially 'failing'.  

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