GCSE results 2016

25 Aug

Voice: the union for education professionals has commented on the GCSE results published today (25 August 2016).
By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

Voice congratulates GCSE students and their teachers, whose hard work, dedication and commitment has enabled them to achieve today’s results.  For many young people, GCSE grades are critically significant to their future study, employment and life chances.  They are also important for individual teachers and school leaders, whose professional standing and career progression may depend on their students’ achievements.  Schools and colleges will be judged on their position in performance league tables and may find themselves, accordingly, praised or pilloried.

Congratulations are also due to the many mature students who have returned to study, often juggling attendance at college and learning at home with work and other commitments in order to advance their own personal development and further their careers and life goals.

This year’s results mark the end of an era for GCSE, at least in England, as this is the last time that all GCSEs will receive A*-G grades.  From next year, GCSEs in English and mathematics will be awarded on a new 9-1 numerical grading system, with other GCSEs following suit over the following two years so that, by 2019, all GCSEs in England will have transferred from alphabetical to numerical grades.

Wales and Northern Ireland are both committed to continuing with the A*-G grading system.  Now that England is being forced to go in a different direction, it is inevitable that the integrity of the GCSE brand will be severely compromised, leaving students, parents, employers and university admissions tutors struggling to make sense of what a GCSE taken in England is worth compared with one taken in Wales or Northern Ireland.

This is complicated by the fact that English awarding bodies have historically marketed their GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in England.  For example, schools in Northern Ireland typically make 25% of GCSE entries through English awarding bodies.  In order to continue this arrangement, awarding bodies in England would have to operate a dual grading system.  AQA and OCR have already indicated that they will not do this.  It is disappointing to see that commercial interests and Government interference are taking precedence over the needs of our young people and, in the process, destroying GCSE as we know it.

Political interference is also apparent in today’s GCSE results, with the high stakes nature of some performance measures (EBacc, Progress 8, Attainment 8, ‘first entry counts’, and post-16 students being required to continue with English and maths until they achieve at least a grade C) affecting entry patterns and exerting a significant impact on outcomes.

It is clear from today’s statistics that fewer 15 year olds are being entered for GCSEs, more 16 year olds are being entered for history and geography (these being key EBacc subjects) and far fewer candidates are sitting creative subjects, such as art, design and technology, drama, music and performing arts (which are excluded from the EBacc accountability measure).  In the longer term, this could have a devastating impact on the UK’s world-leading creative industries, as well as depriving pupils of a well-rounded education and an appreciation for the arts.

It is sad to see a decline in GCSE grades at all levels.  Higher grade passes (grades A*-C) are down by 2.1% (from 69% last year to 66.9% this year), the highest grades (A*-A) are down by 0.7% (from 21.2% last year to 20.5% this year), and the overall pass rate (grades A*-G) is down by 0.2% (from 98.6% last year to 98.4% this year).  With students and teachers being pressured to work harder and harder against severe performance targets and politically motivated efforts to make GCSEs more demanding (in a paradoxical attempt to raise standards), it is not surprising that more young people and their teachers are reported to be suffering from stress-related illnesses and other mental health conditions.

The current regime makes it very difficult for teachers to be creative and inspirational in their teaching or for students to pursue their interests.  The whole accountability system needs to be re-examined, with more autonomy being given back to the profession, retention of a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum, parity between vocational and academic qualifications and an end to performance measures which constrain and narrow the subjects on offer to students.

The kind of political interference observed within the education system over recent years belittles the enormous efforts being made by students and their teachers as they seek to reach and exceed ever more stringent standards.  We should not allow any of these ideological factors to detract from the genuine achievements shown in today’s results.

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