- New GCSEs have been introduced into schools. The reformed English and maths specifications have been taught since September 2015. Most other subjects began being taught in September 2016, with a small number delayed until September 2017. The changes have been motivated on the grounds of falling public confidence in exams. However MORI Social Research, undertaken in 2010 and in 2011 for Ofqual, showed that public confidence in the GCSE was high and that, among teachers, 73 per cent expressed support for the current GCSE system.1
- The new exams are graded from 9 to 1, with 9 being the top grade. According to the Department for Education, broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 and above as currently achieve a grade C. Broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 7 and above as currently achieve an A or higher.
- Grade 5 will be positioned in the top third of the marks for a current grade C and the bottom third of the marks for a current grade B. Initially it was thought that a grade 5 would be determined a ‘good pass’ – in other words pushing up the mark that is required for what is perceived as a ‘pass.’
- In March 2017, Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening clarified that the term ‘good pass’ would not be used but instead that a grade 4 would be known as a ‘standard pass’, a grade 5 would be known as a ‘strong pass’ and that figures would be reported on at both levels. 2 However, this terminology does not remove the concern surrounding the increased difficulty in achieving what is perceived as a ‘pass’ and therefore the decrease in the number of students who will achieve it.
- Examination boards will continue to use the ‘comparable outcomes’ formula imposed by Michael Gove3. This means that grades will be allocated in line with a cohort’s previous performance level. For GCSE students this will be based on key stage 2 performance. Even though grades in individual schools may fluctuate, overall GCSE results will only rise if the results of a controversial ‘reference test’, based on a sample of students, show there have been genuine improvements. 4
- The NUT considers this a retrograde step; a return to a system similar to the ‘O’ level which existed before 1986, in which grades were capped against student numbers. Like the ‘O’ level, the function of the new GCSE will be to ‘ration’ progress by concentrating on what learners can’t do or don’t know in comparison with their peers, rather than acknowledging the achievements they have made. This creates a difficult situation for schools, which are customarily expected to demonstrate improvement. The implications are that a school can only improve if another ‘underperforms’
- As well as the new grading system, there have been other major changes. Firstly the modular courses backed by most teachers have been replaced by a linear approach, with a traditional end of course examination –another feature of the O-level. Course work will continue to play a significant part in the assessment of many creative and expressive subjects like drama and music, but even in these areas, more formal assessment is being introduced.
- The content of the new courses has also been overhauled. According to the Department for Education ‘new GCSEs will set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest performing jurisdictions’5. The emphasis will be on what is considered to be the ‘core knowledge’ for each subject
- To count in school performance tables alongside the new GCSEs, vocational qualifications have also been required to adopt more ‘academic’ types of learning and assessment. In future a vocational course, for example a BTEC First can only count as one, rather than multiple GCSEs.
- In addition to all of these changes the status of various individual GCSE subjects will likely be determined by whether they have been included in the EBacc. Those that are not, may struggle to secure a place in a school’s curriculum offer and if they do, receive less funding. Many educationalists are concerned that creative arts and practical subjects will be squeezed out –with the NUT’s own surveys and research carried out by Kings College London, on its behalf, indicating similar concerns from teachers. Figures from exam bodies show entries falling in creative and performing arts and for technical subjects.6
1Ofqual, (May 2013) Perceptions of A levels, GCSEs and Other Qualifications – Wave 11.Coventry: Ofqual
2Rt Hon Justine Greening MP (2017) [online]. Available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/603594/ESC_letter.pdf