GCSEs 2013: an emerging picture

Bill Watkin, SSAT Operational Director, writes…

Unlike last year, when by midday on ‘Exams Wednesday’ dozens of headteachers and principals had come together with an almost identical experience, the picture this week appears to indicate a greater variation.

Last year, of course, it was particularly the GCSE English grades which attracted attention. The grade boundary changes and their impact were largely unexpected; their effects had not been anticipated by many and the reasons for them were not widely understood. In the early autumn of 2012, Ofqual, DfE, exam boards and schools made extensive efforts to understand and communicate what had happened.

This year, Ofqual circulated, before the results were published:

  1. An overview of the exam system (prepared for MPs, but of use to stakeholders too)
  2. An open letter explaining why results may not be as expected this summer
  3. A chart showing what to do for schools suspect something has gone wrong

Ofqual also published an overview of marking and grading: How are qualifications marked? How are grades awarded?

Last year, tens of thousands of students across the country, getting lower grades than their schools had predicted because of late changes to the grading, were not able to take up a place at their intended destinations, or were entered for re-sits, or were lucky to get to sixth forms and colleges that had adapted their entry level requirements to suit the circumstances. The impact on these students when they come to make their university applications next year still remains to be felt.

Last year, schools experienced the disappointment, anxiety and anger that come from a fall in headline performance figures to which the accountability and inspection frameworks attach such significance. A concern for the well-being of the students concerned and the professional standing of their teachers, as well as for stakeholder perceptions of the schools’ quality, brought many different individuals and institutions together in a legal challenge to what had happened and why and how. The challenge concentrated on the big issues: C/D borderline students in English GCSE with named awarding organisations.

This year, it appears to be less clear-cut. There are again school leaders who have expressed dismay (‘horrified’, ‘disastrous’, ‘disappointing’,  ‘surprisingly poor’, ‘dismal’, ‘reeling’) and there are others who are celebrating (‘delighted’, ‘outstanding’, ‘best ever’, ‘wonderful’), though the former outnumber the latter. Many school leaders are reporting unexpected and disappointing results which are out of step with teacher predictions, even where teacher predictions have been consistently accurate for years.

This year, it is not just English. Also cited are maths and, to a lesser extent, science. It may be that other subjects are affected but that they have less impact on 5+A*-CEM. It is also too early to say whether the issues are limited to particular exam boards or whether all are involved.

It appears that, with one board, English C/D grade boundaries went up by 8 points again this year, having seen the same increase last year. In maths, the C/D grade boundaries were moved up by 13 points.

So why is it that some schools appear to have been hit harder than others? How can some schools be reporting significant improvements and successes, while others are seeing disheartened teachers and students facing disappointing results and the shock of falling below the floor target?

The answer lies, to some extent, in the marks achieved by the students. The impact on the headline figures for a department will be most keenly felt where there is a greater concentration of students whose marks place them at or near the boundary. A student with a very safe B, some 15 points above the line, is not going to be affected by a 10 point hike in the boundary. While another student, who just managed to secure a B grade will find, when the bar is raised, that what might previously have been a B is now a C. The more students whose marks are at or near the boundary, the more will get lower than predicted grades. The more who get lower grades than predicted, the greater the impact on the headline figures.

It is not an inevitability that where there will be some losers, there will be a corresponding number of students from the same school that gain from this system. But what is inevitable, as long as we operate a ‘comparable outcomes’ model, is that the national cohort will not see significant change. If some students improve, others, somewhere, must get worse. This is what it means to keep the cohort’s performance in line with last year’s and in line with their prior attainment. Ofqual must keep the results roughly stable. Not much better and not much worse than previous years. And this, in the context of pressure from the accountability to raise standards in all schools.

As others have pointed out, this tension, to keep results steady on the one hand, and to demand improvements across the board on the other, needs to be addressed.

There is also the need, identified by the secretary of state, and picked up by Sir Michael Wilshaw (HMCI), to address the imperative that schools feel to concentrate on C/D borderline learners in, particularly, English and maths. There is no indication yet that the proposed amendments to the accountability framework will resolve the conundrum.

As Graham Stuart, Chair of the Education Select Committee, said this week, if we are to move to a system which reports schools performance by adopting two measures, the percentage passing English and maths, as well as progress in the Best 8, we will still be fostering schools’ need to concentrate on the pass/fail boundary in English and maths.

So, in schools where the distribution of marks awarded places small numbers of students at or near the boundaries, the impact is likely to be, at worst, negligible; indeed, it is possible to see improvements. In schools where large numbers of students are at or near the grade boundaries, it is likely that a greater negative impact might be felt. It is this distribution of marks which determines the impact – by subject area and by school – giving rise to within-school variation and a variety of experience across schools.

Early indications suggest that, again, it is the most vulnerable young people in the more fragile schools who will be more likely to suffer from these grade boundary changes. Those whose grades are hovering around the C/D borderline, that critical key to gateways that enhance social mobility, inspire confidence and create opportunities. Schools which are hovering around the floor target, even having made significant progress with a profile of students with low prior attainment and/or high social disadvantage.

It is noticeable that a number of early accounts tell of lower attainers failing to reach a C, but higher attainers doing as well as, or even better than, last year.

This is not to say that all schools facing these circumstances have seen a decline. Far from it. But, if progress made and attainment reached by students in fragile schools is harder to come by – because barriers to learning such as behaviour, attendance, parental engagement, teacher mobility, student mobility, etc, are all more keenly felt – it goes without saying that the current system of measurements disadvantages the disadvantaged.

The last two years have seen what some have described as a rather piecemeal approach to achieving greater rigour by raising the bar and this has made it difficult for school leaders to interpret, predict, analyse, intervene, and evaluate policy, practice and performance.

This autumn, the government is to pronounce on the new national curriculum, KS4 content and assessments, and the accountability framework, following a period of consultation earlier this year. It is widely understood and accepted that what young people learn, how they are tested and the standards they must achieve will be subject to greater rigour and will be accompanied by higher expectations. Few would argue with this principled objective, of a more demanding and rigorous system to build a well-qualified and suitably skilled cohort of school leavers; many will look forward to a coherent strategy and a well-signposted journey to the new landscape.

Join hundreds of school leaders and practitioners and be part of the Redesigning Schooling campaign to shape this journey and landscape at SSAT’s National Conference 2013: the new professionalism.


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