Education secretary Justine Greening announced today that a grade 4 will now be considered “a standard pass”, while grade 5 will be called a “strong pass”. So what’s this all about? Laura McInerney explains.

Just when you thought the C-grade threshold problem was all but gone in education, Justine Greening decides to drag us all back in. Hurrah!

What has happened?

For the past few years everyone in education has been primed over the change in GCSE grades. From this year, they will move from being A*-G to a 1-9 grade.

The move from an 8-part scale to a 9-part scale was on purpose. The two were not supposed to overlap exactly. Instead, a 4 grade was said to be equivalent to around the bottom two-thirds of a C grade. A 5 grade includes the top of the C grades and those around the bottom of a B.

Isn’t that confusing?

Yeah, a bit. But it wasn’t supposed to matter much because the old A*-C pass rate was supposed to be defunct. These days, schools are mostly measured on progress measures (Progress 8). One of the main reasons for doing this was to stop everyone obsessing about which kids got a C and instead focus on everyone making as much progress as they could.

BUT, Nicky Morgan decided to stick her oar into the plan a little bit.

Nicky Morgan decided to stick her oar in

Back in 2015 she said the grade 5 would become the new ‘good’ pass rate. So that when someone asked “what percentage of kids in that school passed their GCSEs?”, the number given back would be the percentage getting 5s or above. She chose a 5 because it was supposed to be equivalent to the rate most kids are working at in countries with top-performing schools, such as Finland and Singapore.

Unfortunately, once you define a ‘grade 5’ as a ‘good pass’ some other complications kick in.

For example, the government require 16-year-olds to “pass” their English and maths GCSEs. If they don’t, they have to resit. So which grade would they be required to pass at: 4 or 5? Also, if you get a 4, which is below a ‘good pass’, does that mean you’ve failed? If so, that would mean a lot more pupils “failing” their GCSEs than before. Which looks really bad in headlines.

Hence, the government came up with some answers to these questions. It essentially said that for school performance league tables it would look at pass rates of 5 or above, but for things like choosing kids for resits or letting them into college, you should use 4 as the equivalent to a C.

EVERYONE FINALLY GOT THE POINT. Woot.

And thenand then… Today.

SO, Justine Greening has now announced there will be two GCSE pass rates in school performance tables. One will measure grade 5s or above, and this will be called the ‘strong’ pass rate. And the other will measure grade 4s or above, and this will be the ‘standard’ pass rate.

In some senses, it’s not a bad idea as it will mean the measures are comparable. We can check if the ‘standard’ rate is better or worse over the next few years. (This is particularly good for the DfE who have been told off by the government watchdog for fiddling about with data so much that no one can tell if anything has worked anymore).

All this grading stuff is very complicated

The problem is that it brings back all the problems of a threshold which we dreamed of getting rid of with Progress 8. It means schools will agonise over whether kids are getting 4s or 5s, because it will affect their ‘strong’ versus ‘standard’ rate.

Plus, let’s be bluntly honest, what this is going to lead to is people calling a 4 “a bad C” and a 5 “a good C”. Because all this grading stuff is very complicated and we all just want to make things simple.

What might have been better?

It really would be better for everyone if the government just stopped publishing random pass rates altogether. Frankly, there’s no reason why a 5 is strong and a 4 is standard. How do we describe a 6 or above? Super strong?!

Why not just have every school publish its overall percentage pass rates at each level, and leave it at that?

Sadly, I know why. It’s because politicians want to be able to talk about the pass rates in their speeches. They want to be able to talk about “strong” performance. (Even though it doesn’t really mean anything). And because, since the national insurance u-turn, the Prime Minister is terrified of being seen to change her mind on anything else. So it’s full steam ahead. For rhetoric’s sake, not pupils’.