GCSEs 2017

24 Aug

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

 File photo dated 10/06/2005 of exams in progress.

Voice congratulates students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on the GCSE results published today (24 August 2017).  In spite of some of the most significant changes to occur since 1988, when GCSEs were first examined, today’s results reflect high standards of teaching and academic support, and sustained hard work from young people, who have tackled the new challenges and should be proud of their achievements.

This is the first year that the new 9-1 grading system has featured in GCSE results, although it applies only to English language, English literature and maths this year, with other subjects to follow over the next two years.  Therefore, this year’s GCSE students will be receiving a mixture of numerical and alphabetical grades – but only in England, as Wales and Northern Ireland are sticking with the A*-G grading system.

As the reformed GCSEs, which are subject to the new grading system, are designed to be more challenging, with less coursework, more end-of-course assessment, harder and broader content and tougher exams, it is not surprising to see that top grades (A-A*/7-9) are down by 0.5% (20% this year, compared with 20.5% last year), and the level 2 pass rate (grades C-A*/4-9) is down by 0.6% (66.3% this year; 66.9% last year).

However, this is likely to be the thin end of the wedge, as most GCSEs this year are still in the old system, so the thick end of the wedge won’t be seen until 2019.  Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ approach has had a further cushioning effect, as the qualifications regulator has lowered some of the grade thresholds to safeguard students from the full effect of tougher standards as the reformed system is phased in.

Indeed, Ofqual claim that this approach would have resulted in this year’s outcomes being identical to last year’s if it had not been for the fact that this year’s GCSE cohort has a lower prior attainment profile (based on their Key Stage 2 SATs’ results), which, according to Ofqual, means that they could not be expected to achieve as much as last year’s cohort.

This remains controversial, as teachers and school leaders are constantly being encouraged to have high expectations of pupils, and not to impose an artificial cap on their aspiration by labelling them or defining the limits of their attainment on the basis of prior performance.  After all, if pupils are to benefit from their education, it should be expected that they will increase in knowledge, understanding and skills, and if any measurement at a given point in time shows that they are underperforming, it is incumbent on a school to do all that it can to turn this around.

A further problem this year is that we now appear to have three pass marks: grade G (or 1 under the new system) is a basic pass, grade C (or 4) is a ‘standard pass’, and the new grade 5 (B/C under the old system) is ‘strong pass’.  All this is likely to be very confusing to employers, parents, school staff and university admissions tutors.  With so much unprecedented change taking place, it is not surprising that even the most experienced teachers are no longer confident about predicting who will achieve a grade C/4 or A/7, as the goalposts seem to be portable and much more emphasis seems to being placed on statistical data to judge grade boundaries rather than the professional judgement of senior examiners.  The current turbulence could be worthwhile if it leads to GCSE grades being more valid and reliable but, after several years of constant change, there is an urgent need for stability to return to the system.

None of these issues should, however, be allowed to undermine or detract from the genuine achievements shown in today’s results.  Today is a day to celebrate all the hard work and commitment demonstrated by students and staff across the country.

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