Nearly 60% ‘fail’ to get strong GCSE pass in English and maths

Janet Downs's picture

ASCL launches inquiry into system leaving pupils 'deflated'

The Association of Schools and Colleges has launched an inquiry into GCSE results which, the union claims, leaves pupils ‘deflated and uncertain’, Schools Week reports. 

57% of pupils in state-funded schools didn’t reach the government’s ‘strong pass’ standard in English and maths – a grade 5.  School performance is judged against this measure but it sends out a confusing message about the value of reaching a ‘standard’ grade 4 pass.

Dividing GCSEs  into 'good' passes, 'standard' passes and 'strong' passes has been an insidious trend

When GCSEs began, all grades were passes.  These ranged from basic Grade G to exceptional Grade A (A* was added later).   Since then, some politician or other decided GCSE pass rates were a good way of ranking schools.  But most pupils passed GCSEs.  Time to change the goalposts and talk about 'good' passes. 

Good passes imply bad ones; strong passes mean the rest are weak

But there's a downside to classifying passes in this way:  'good' passes imply 'bad' ones; ‘strong’ passes mean the rest are weak. 

This undermines the philosophy behind the introduction of GCSEs: one exam accessible to all mainstream 16-year-olds which would show each pupil’s achievement on a seven-point scale.  The only fail grade was a U – unclassified.

The battle against alleged grade inflation creates only losers

GCSEs were reformed, it was said, to tackle alleged grade inflation.  But this presented the government with a quandary: how to recalibrate GCSE grades to reduce the proportion reaching higher grades while avoiding an outcry from parents and teachers when pupils who would previously have received higher grades received lower ones?

The answer?   Introduce arbitrary standard and strong passes.  But the consequence of this confusion is that anything less than a standard pass is… what exactly?  A non-standard pass?  A weak pass?  Or just a plain fail?

The English education system lets down its pupils

No other nation has such high-stakes exams at 16.  No other nation expects 16-year-olds to take so many exams.  No other nation ranks schools on how their pupils perform at 16.

This excessive emphasis on GCSEs in England, something the OECD warned about in 2011, has negative consequences: 

  • Unnecessary pressure on young people and their teachers
  • Downgrading the curriculum
  • Teaching to the test
  • Gaming
  • Off-rolling

Moving towards graduation at 18 would relieve pressure

Moving towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes would relieve pressure at age 16.  Sensible exam reform would have moved towards this goal.

Unfortunately, recent governments have valued the ability to rank schools over high quality education.   

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 17/10/2018 - 14:23

Absolutely right Janet. And the problems do not just arise for students. They also create issues for access to degree courses such as nursing and midwifery, where given that on England most candidates gain entry on the basis of a BTEC, which frequently has a 100 percent pass rates, rather than even the 2 x E grade A Level alternative, the accompanying requirement for 5 x Grade 4 GCSEs including English and maths hardly seems appropriate for dealing with life and death issues in the NHS. This is certainly the view in Scotland where the entry requirements are much higher.

I discuss these issues here.

I also agree with Janet that the original A-G grade that applied when the GCSE was created by the amalgamation of GCE and CSE, was far better suited. Every change that has been made subsequently by the former Labour government and its successors has just created more problems, which would not have arisen in the first place had not the Blair government created such horrendous grade inflation and its successors been so obsessed with using exam results to judge schools rather than to serve the needs of students, schools, colleges and employers.

It will be interesting to see how Amanda Spielman's seeing the light will work out.

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