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What does the 4/5 threshold announcement really mean?

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Policy, SSAT, writes…

On Tuesday 28 March, Justine Greening clarified her thinking on the new GCSE ‘pass’ rate in a public letter to the select committee. Previously, the DfE had talked about a ‘pass’ as grade 4 or higher, but a ‘good pass’ as grade 5 or higher – and it would be this latter criterion that would feed into performance measures.

However, that language has now been changed – a ‘standard pass’ (what employers, FE and HE should think about as the new ‘C’) will be a grade 4 or higher; while a grade 5 or higher will be considered a ‘strong pass’.So what does this mean for schools?

What do we actually know from yesterday?

  • Teachers, students, parents, employers, FE and HE should consider a grade 4 a pass, viewing it in the way we currently view a C.
  • Students who get a grade 4 in English and maths will not have to resit P16 in 2017-2018, and this is likely to be the case for some years.
  • In some measures (see below) both achievement at ‘standard pass’ and ‘strong pass’ will be reported on.
  • The DfE yesterday confirmed that the % achieving Ebacc pass measure will still require students to get a strong pass of a grade 5 (or a C in legacy GCSEs) in an English, maths, two sciences, a language, and history or geography.

What does this mean for current performance measures?

The main headline measures – and the ones that determine the floor standard and coasting definition criteria – Progress 8 and Attainment 8 are unaffected. Because there is no determined progress that students should make each year, as it is a relative measure to other students with the similar KS2 starting points, it doesn’t matter at all where an arbitrary threshold of pass / fail is.

For the two Ebacc measures, both are also unaffected. For the % entered, the threshold never mattered. For the % achieved, it has always been assumed that this would require a grade 5 or grade C in each of the subjects. The DfE have confirmed this is still the case.

Greening talked about reporting ‘both’ ‘standard pass’ and ‘strong pass’. So the only measure left that this would affect is the ‘basics’ measure (the % of students passing both English and maths). So, from yesterday’s announcement, I would interpret this as one measure being divided into two – where schools will have reported the % of the cohort that get a standard pass in both English and maths; and the % of the cohort who get a strong pass in both English and maths.

A new performance measure?

The other option for the DfE is to create a new performance measure to ‘report’ these different pass rates. As Schools Week’s Laura McInerney’s blog implicitly suggests, there could be a movement to reporting the % of the cohort who standard pass and strong pass all their GCSEs – presumably the same 8 as used in Attainment 8.

This would, frankly, be a terrible idea. At a time when P8 encourages us to think about the progress of all students, any new measures that report on a threshold basis (beyond Ebacc and Basics) would be counterproductive and regressive. SSAT would actively challenge any such proposal from the Department.

In-school implications

In some ways, yesterday’s announcement has the greatest implications at school and student level. It clarifies for leaders, teachers, governors, students and parents that a grade 4 is considered a pass and may therefore feed into in-school reporting on department achievement levels. However, there is also a danger that there may be added confusion for employers, FE and HE about what constitutes a pass, at a time of great change anyway.

However, this raises further some questions…

What do you ask departments to report on? You could look at the % of each subject’s cohort that achieved a standard pass (seems to make sense, no?). But for your Ebacc subjects, they need to get a strong pass to count in the Ebacc measure – so do you raise the bar higher for them? Do you just get all departments to report on strong passes? But then doesn’t this negate and devalue the notion of a standard pass? As the Department and Ofsted do not have a preferred way of schools collecting and reporting data, this will be a decision each school will make itself.

Do we even need to talk to students about ‘passing’ at all? One of the great benefits of P8 was that it took the focus off the C/D borderline. With this shift in focus, we can also shift our language so we stop talking so much about students passing or, more critically, failing their GCSEs. However, that being said, with the DfE talking about passing and most parents and employers seeing pass and fail as a binary measure, is it disingenuous not to be honest about what society will see as success? Again, this will come down to schools’ own choices – and may require a personalised approach for different students.

Ultimately, on its own, yesterday’s announcement doesn’t mean very much. Let’s just make sure that, whether at policy or practice level, we don’t let it shift the focus back to thresholds. Progress 8 isn’t perfect, but we must continue to think about good progress for every young person.


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One thought on “What does the 4/5 threshold announcement really mean?

  1. Dear Tom – very helpful and clear post – thank you! Please note your typo: penultimate paragraph, 2nd sentence – I think you mean “focus off” not “focus of”?

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