GCSEs should equip as many young people as possible with the skills to succeed. Recent overhauls are unlikely to deliverby Kevan Collins / August 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…