Should we make the GCSE pass rate harder? In response to Mark Dawes

The new GCSEs will be challenging. But schools are in an excellent position to deliver qualifications that at last will prepare students to succeed in a demanding economy

In September, schools will begin teaching the new maths and English GCSEs to year 10. These qualifications, and others that follow in 2016 and 2017, are the product of five years of work following the curriculum review that started under the Coalition government in 2010.

The purpose of our reforms has been clear from the start: to equip our young people for life in a competitive world, and to ensure that the standards we expect in our schools match those of the highest performing systems around the world. Delivering social justice requires high aspirations and extending opportunity, not low expectations that leave some young people short.

Before 2010, international benchmarks showed that the performance of English pupils was stagnating. Despite this, GCSE results were inflating. In 1994, the first year in which the A* was awarded at GCSE, 10.5 per cent of grades were either A* or A. By 2013, 22.6 per cent of grades were A or A*.

Those running our education system had false confidence that standards were rising, when the truth was that our qualifications were becoming devalued and were failing to prepare students to succeed in a demanding economy. Recent Ofqual research looking at level of demand in the maths GCSE shows that current GCSEs are easier than their equivalents in many high-performing countries. We are doing young people a disservice if we award them qualifications that do not reflect the high expectations of employers.

The new maths and English GCSEs represent gold standard qualifications

We were not prepared to accept this status quo. We introduced linear examinations, ended resits of individual units, and strengthened individual subjects by, for example, increasing the requirement for accuracy of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

In developing the content for the new GCSEs, we have consulted widely with teachers, employers and subject associations. I am confident that the new maths and English GCSEs represent gold standard qualifications for our young people, which will command the respect of employers, colleges and universities. For the first time, the new maths GCSE will require students to study vectors and conditional probability, and learn key mathematical formulae by heart to improve their fundamental fluency. In the new English GCSE, students will have to read a wide range of classic literature fluently – including 19th-century novels, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.

To differentiate the new GCSEs from existing qualifications, they will use a new 1-9 scale, in which 9 represents the top grade. We announced last week that the level of a “good pass” in the new GCSE will be set at a grade 5. This is equivalent to top third of the marks for a current grade C and bottom third of the marks for a current grade B in the current GCSEs.

The higher standard is in line with the average performance in high-performing countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It would not be possible to justify placing our bar lower than those of our international competitors.

The comparable outcomes approach used by Ofqual will protect students from any volatility caused by the introduction of new qualifications. In the longer term, Ofqual is introducing a national reference test to measure changes in performance across cohorts as pupils and teachers rise to the challenge of the more demanding standard. We will put in place an initial transition period in 2017/18 and 2018/19, so that students aged 16-19 will only be required to retake English and maths where they fail to achieve at least a grade 4. From 2019/20 onwards, we intend to align the funding condition with the new good pass at grade 5.

Every teacher knows that it is only by holding – and sticking to – the highest expectations for young people that we provide them with the opportunity to succeed. These reforms deliver on our commitment to social justice, and represent a balanced plan to ensure that more students leave school equipped for a successful future.