GCSEs, KS2 SATS, Ofsted and Ofqual– schools need answers.

Fiona Millar's picture
Amid the debate and controversy about the planned GCSE replacement, it is important not to lose sight of what is still going on right now in schools around the country in the wake of this summer’s GCSE re-grading row.

One fact that emerged last week has been perplexing me. Three pieces of evidence;  the Ofqual letters to Edexcel leaked to the TES, the testimony of the Ofqual CEO to the Education Select Committee and the findings of the Welsh government’s review into re-grading all focused on the role played by KS2 SATs results in the regulation of GCSE results. Education journalist Warwick Mansell as also written an extensive blog on this here.

This statement on the Ofqual website summarises the situation. A prediction about GCSEs is made based on the KS2 results of the cohort in question. If that cohort exceeds expectations then the English exam regulator forces down the GCSE grades to bring them into line with predictions.

This is one of the reasons why the Welsh government decided to order the Welsh exam board to re-grade English GCSE papers for Welsh students. Those students were not part of the KS2 cohort on which English pupils’ 2012 results were based since Welsh primary school pupils don’t sit the test at all. The Welsh review took the view that basing GCSE results on English pupils’ performance gave an inaccurate picture of the potential of their Welsh peers.

But if GCSE results are based on KS2 predictions, how can schools do what is expected of them in terms of the performance tables, RAISEonline and Ofsted? All these key measures of accountability rest on how well schools enable their pupils to make progress from KS2.

To make more than average progress and exceed expectations, which is what schools are being asked to do consistently in order to be judged good or better, pupils must exceed expected progress from their starting points. This is particularly graphically shown in the RAISEonline data that schools receive each year to analyse their GCSE results and compare progress with other schools.

But if pupils across the country are only allowed to make the predicted progress, schools are being asked to do the impossible. Some may be able to make exceptional progress (presumably those that put their pupils in for early entry English this year will benefit) but this must be at the expense of other schools, and pupils.

The fact that this is at odds with what government and Ofsted are asking of schools is hinted at in these two letters on the Ofqual website dated August 15. The first is from Ofqual CEO Glenys Stacey to Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, the second from Ms Stacey to Education Secretary Michael Gove. In the letters Ms Stacey sets out how Ofqual will enforce its ‘comparable outcomes’ approach to grades, taking account of the prior attainment of students, to try and contain what she calls ‘grade inflation’

Here is the relevant paragraph from the letter to Sir Michael:

“One consequence of this approach is that it is less likely that schools as a whole will be able to evidence improvement with better exam results, year after year. Unlike in past years, we do not expect to see year-on-year increases in attainment.

We are confident that we can justify this approach given our objective to secure standards. But we recognise that it will create concerns in schools and it will have implications for you, given that exam results are part of the evidence base that you use in inspecting and reporting on schools” 

She concludes by requesting a meeting with Sir Michael to discuss this.

Her letter to Michael Gove says:

“In past years, we saw year-on-year increases in national exam results. Our approach means that whilst some schools will see improvement in their exam results, due to comparable outcomes the overall results will not show significant increases. So it will be difficult to secure system-level improvements in exam results which you have said you want to see. And we know that many in the education sector are concerned about this.

…. And for future years, we will explore whether there is scope to develop the approach so that genuine increases in performance can be more easily demonstrated, where there is evidence for that. But we do not underestimate the difficulty of doing that.”

She is certainly right that schools will be concerned about this, and about the fact that she readily admits Ofqual doesn’t know how to judge genuine progress. Several head teachers are already expressing concern. Ian Bauckman, a head from Kent tweeted: “Gove speaks of 'transformative power of education', but Ofqual says GCSE results can't be allowed to exceed KS2 predictions = contradiction.”

John Tomsett, a head from York tweeted: It's against everything every headteacher I know believes in... It means intelligence is fixed & secondary schools can never be better than their intake. Deeply dispiriting if you let it be.

Amid all the heat that today’s GCSE statement will generate, I hope someone will be able to explain how to resolve this contradiction and explain to schools what they are expected to do now to demonstrate they are succeeding according to the accountability system in which they operate.
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Simon's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 12:41

The issue that worries me most is why is that pupils taking GCSE's A Levels etc. are expected to get better grades year upon year. Surely we all know the whole system is flawed as if we had more "brighter" children than ever leaving school why is the UK no at the leading edge of R & D for example? When I left school in 1992 the GCSE pass mark to get a "C grade in maths was 50%. In the past few years this same grade has required a mark as low as 17%. Verified to me by a contact who is directly involved in government work setting pass marks. What is so wrong with this picture that everyone thinks it is wrong to finally start admitting that the UK education/exam system is close to collapse at a very time when teachers pay is higher than ever.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 13:17

Simon - while I agree that the exam system for 16 year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is close to collapse following this summer's debacle over GCSE results please provide authorative evidence (with links) which shows that the "UK education system is close to collapse".

If you have difficult in finding any from a reliable source, then you might find it useful to read "Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?" in FAQs above.

Ros Lee's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 13:06

Clear, concise and rational summary of fundamental issue that has been exposed during the GCSE marking debacle.
The Government say they want business to channel the spirit of the Olympics, and googling Team GB Cycling's "aggregation of marginal gains" gives numerous articles of how this philospohy can be applied to businesses today.
In essence marginal gains means: "The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together." Surely schools have been applying this theory and all the 1% have added up to more kids surpassing their KS2 outcome at age 10. So marginal gains Team GB = good, marginal gains in education = grade inflation?
NB: Why is the "free market" supposedly good for the consumer in every area, EXCEPT when it comes to exam boards?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 13:12

I pointed out the mismatch between expecting all 16 year-olds to achieve grade C in Maths and English while at the same time making exams more difficult to pass in my spoof "Yes Minister: all must have prizes" linked below.

The spoof contained a link to a DfE document "ks2-ks4_levels_of_progress_-_new_methodology.doc", dated July 8 2011, which laid down the expected progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 (eg a pupil leaving primary school with level 3 should be expected to gain GCSE grade D). But this expected grade (D) is below Gove's expectation that ALL 16 year-olds should get a C (Gove obviously hasn't read his own Department's progress chart).

Now we learn that GCSEs are pegged to KS2 results. It follows, then, that if a large number of Level 3 pupils improve (as the Government says they should) and gain GCSE Grade C, then results overall would be downgraded because the results didn't match the expected progress.

This would result in the Government (a) saying rigour has been restored in the exam system, (b) that teachers are failing to raise the results of under-performing children, and (c) that state education is failing because all 16 year-olds aren't getting Grade C.

We really are in a world where "Alice in Wonderland" meets Orwell. And Gove can't explain the contradiction - in his world of doublethink he probably doesn't even believe one exists.


Richard's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 13:16

As far as I'm concerned, pegging a child's life chances to their achievements at KS2 stinks of social engineering.

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 14:46

This is shocking. To set how many children can get which grades in GCSE according to KS2 results means there can be no overall improvement year-on-year, however well secondary schools do.

I had wondered whether this fitted with the pass rate for English GCSE going down by 1.5% against what I thought was a rising KS2 trend. But I checked our school's Raise Online and it shows the KS2 average for this year's cohort was 27.8 against 28 for the previous year. So I guess that matches.

There has probably been grade inflation in the past but a close look at the 2011 results indicate a genuine improvement. Take the fact that for schools over 60% (on the 5 GCSE EM benchmark) there was, on average, no overall improvement. But for those below 35% there was an average 8% improvement. If the 2011 increase was down to grade inflation you would expect improvement across all schools.

Michael Dix's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 17:34

I love it when people say the exams have to be getting easier because pupils can't be getting brighter. This view rests on a. the belief that exams test pupils' ability and b. that ability is fixed.

My involvement with KS2 Sats over many years illustrates that the rise in the percentage attaining level 4 is due to a whole range of factors: familiarity with the way questions are asked, exam technique (answer all the questions you can do first and then look at the more difficult ones, rather than get bogged down), practice at working to a time limit, revision and... yes, improved teaching.

I fail to see how anyone can identify with any confidence the reasons for a rise in top grades at GCSE. Certainly boards competing for business can't be helping, but could it also be that teaching and learning is improving. Of course heresay says that employers find school leavers increasingly illiterate and innumerate - alas, it has always been the case. I can remember a headteacher friend of my mother's who did public speaking at business events by reading a report castigating the inadequacies of the school leavers. The talk was in the late 1970s, the report from the 1920s! We could look at international tests but they present very mixed messages and are fraught with reliability questions, this despite their continued deliberate misuse by politicians and those who should know better.

I am pleased that Ofqual didn't get near the Olympic and Paralympic organisers this summer. We'd have had no new world records because people can't run, jump and throw faster and further can they?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:12

I love it when people say the exams have to be getting easier because pupils can’t be getting brighter. This view rests on a. the belief that exams test pupils’ ability and b. that ability is fixed.

... and it also rest on

c. that teachers can't get better at teaching: and
d. that sheer hard work can't make up for some deficiencies in natural ability.

If all the effort that appears to be going into the fixing of grade boundaries were instead to go into ensuring that the difficulty of exam questions, year on year, remained constant, then we'd be able to see the fruits of effort and improvement.

Sion Humphreys's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 20:23

As I understand it, the KS2 to KS4 relationship at a macro level involves looking at aggregates: on the basis of x aggregate specified performance at KS2, 5 tears down the line we anticipate y amount of specified grades. However, at the school level progress relates to its actual cohort and at pupils level the progress measure becomes even more focused. If I am correct this helps explain discrepancies between a school's expectations and actual grades.

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