GCSE reforms: So… um… how exactly have they helped low-attaining pupils?

It’s nice to see Nick Gibb explaining how harder GCSEs are going to lift all standards. It must be ace to be a politician, all happy in your oak-panelled office that the grand plan you scribbled down on a piece of paper, but took no part in actually delivering, is defo going to work.

It’s a little tougher if you’re a teacher sweating in the classroom with a child who struggles with memory skills. Still, you’ve got to give politicians their moments in the sun: at last they’ve solved our national spreadsheet nightmare of trying to add up lettered grades to give value-added scores. Plus there’s the benefit of greater differentiation among top achievers to help out our universities, which are now reliant on GCSE grades after AS-level grades disappeared.

But what of the children who receive lower grades? What do these new GCSEs do for them?

Politicians don’t like mentioning children who get low grades; they’re a bit of a dirty secret. So thank heavens for people like Conservative MP Graham Stuart, who mentioned back in 2011, when the tougher GCSE idea was first mooted, that perhaps someone ought to pay attention to the fact that around half of all children weren’t getting five C grades at GCSE with English and maths included – and that was before things were to be made “more rigorous”. Why, he wondered, would anyone think it was a bankrupt qualification? Why make out like the old GCSEs were easy?

Simple: it gives politicians something to say. The wheels on the blowhard bus must go round. And so politicians have prattled on for the past six years about the new 9 grade, and “world-class” standards and bright-but-poor kids, and have utterly ignored the fact that these new GCSEs do sod all for the kids who were already getting low grades and have pretty terrible outcomes. You know, the kids we probably ought to worry about.

The wheels on the blowhard bus must go round

The new system is particularly problematic for these pupils as there are fewer grades at the bottom, which is a pain for colleges. Previously, a student with a D grade was treated differently to ones with Es, Fs or Gs. Tomorrow, students achieving a 3 grade will be a mix of D and Es, a broader category, which will make it harder to figure out their best course. At the top end, while everyone is happily sifting through the best of the best, we will have less precision at the bottom.

Plus, and I really do want to labour this point, nothing has changed for any of these children. No-one getting a 3 grade is more “world-class” than before. No-one has more options than last year. The only difference now is that if you get a grade 3 or below, you’ve not only notionally failed because you didn’t get a C-equivalent “good pass”, you’ve also really and properly failed because you didn’t even meet the newly-labelled “standard pass” grade 4. From tomorrow, if you receive a 1 to 3 grade, you are “sub-standard”. Nice.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bleeding-heart plea that no one should ever be allowed to fail at anything. But it is a shame that after seven years of reform, resources, speeches and teachers’ sweat and tears, we have essentially given a tiny percentage of children finer-graded outcomes, and left the rest with less – even as Nick Gibb crows about his own achievements.

What an utter waste of a decade.

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  1. John Connor

    Spot on. The GCSE “reforms” were never about the lower attainers. This government isn’t interested. It’s about preserving access to education for the elite. They just don’t get it. For decades teachers have been making the silk purses of lower grades from the sow’s ears of pupils who often lead chaotic lives in dysfunctional fragmented families. Theirs is the greater achievement, as the odds are stacked against them, instead of being stacked in their favour. But a one-size-fits-all high stakes testing regime backed by punitive league tables and regulated by a draconian adversarial inspection regime will never address this, so lower attainers will continue to be airbrushed out of the picture. It’s a complete travesty, but entirely in keeping with the mindset of a heartless government who definitely don’t want an educated proletariat.

  2. Grade D was a difficult one under the old system – it was either a near miss, or a good achievement for a someone whose skills lay in other areas. The world would never believe F was a pass, let a lone a G, and we are better off without four grades below C and only three above it. Using 1 as an entry grade is psychologically less damaging than having letters such as G or F. I don’t believe candidates with grades below C will be any worse off at all, and have seen no evidence to suggest that they will be. Trying to distinguish between G and F, or even E and F, was pretty pointless.

  3. So what is the C equivalent “good pass”? This must be a joke – two grades both considered the passing grade; 4 and 5. Absolutely no mention from Ofqual on their methodology for the OECD Pisa / grade 4/5 project promised by Tim Oates.

  4. When GCSE was first introduced it was a noble attempt to provide an exam for ALL pupils. The grading system (A-G) allowed pupils to achieve a pass from basic (G) to exceptional (A). C was supposed to show above-average ability.
    But years of pontificating by politicians and some journalists (‘travesty of our failing schools’ etc) rubbished the achievement of those who were awarded anything less than a C. Only those grades C or above were ‘good’ grades. And they were marketed as being achievable by all.
    Gibb says the new GCSEs bring England in line with high-achieving countries. They don’t. Most such countries don’t have high-stakes exams at the end of lower secondary (age 15/16). If they exist, they are few in number and concentrate on core subjects. They are used to decide upper secondary progression and NOT to judge schools.
    Laura is right that the new exams (and the rubbishing of any grade lower than C) does sod all for low achievers. These young people have been and are being ignored – and it’s a national shame.

    • Ros Lucas

      I agree about the waste of time spent by students studying for 10 GCSEs and getting Ds Es and below – how demoralising!

      If these students, who are already identifiable from Primary age and in their secondary school, were allowed to study fewer subjects, be given more time on them and intervention strategies that supported their individual areas of weaknesses were used, these students may then stand more chance of achieving core subjects at a higher grade!

      Why such intimidating, low self-esteem producing procedures are forced on slower learners and often those who are many months younger than their counterparts, or having special needs, is beyond belief in the 21st Century.

      This is and has been one of the reasons many 16 year olds have been unable to gain confidence and motivation in school – time to do something different if we want things and attitudes to change.

  5. Surely it would be better for everyone (not least the students) if education was cross-party, rather than constantly being used as the pole for the latest minister to hang his or her flag on? Let’s have some proper long-term thinking – involving those at the frontline as well as the politicians. Now that would be a campaign to support. How about it Schools Week?

  6. Ms Stevens

    This is a magnificent piece. During my NQT year, a very wise woman who trained me, explained this: someone has to get a D or below and schools should start accepting that 100% A-C is not achievable, in most instances. What you have particularly highlighted here is that now, “From tomorrow, if you receive a 1 to 3 grade, you are “sub-standard”. Nice.”

    The language used to label students who do not make the magic 4 and above, is damaging. Perhaps the language of 1-3 = pass, 4-6 = merit, and 7-9 = distinction might be a solution. Previously, as stated, any grade above a G was a pass, so why not keep the same language? Sometimes, I feel our politicians do our young people a disservice in the way they talk about their abilities.

  7. As an SEN teacher I found these new gcses completely demoralising. I was unable to prepare them for what to expect in terms of their predicted grades because I didn’t t have a clue where the boundaries sat. They struggled to read and have a clue what was going on in the reading text as it was far too advanced for them, but despite all this they all got a grade-granted 1s and 2s but that is a huge achievement showing years of hard work by these young people. I just find it really hard to explain to the boy who got one mark off a 3 and the girl who just touched the level 2 boundary that although last year he’d have got a higher grade than her now they’re given the same level and cant compare to their friends in the year above! When will they actually remember the no child left behind motto or the every child matters compaigns they put in place and apply it to their own publications!

  8. Katherine Dorner

    The fact is and has always been that everyone is different, with different strengths and different abilities. Some children are brilliant in practical subjects where they can use their hands and brains together; others are more able to deal with philosophical concepts and thinking. The fact that so many children are seen as disposable (we’ll put our worst teacher with the lowest ability class because they’re never going to get a C so it doesn’t matter) has always frustrated and upset me as a teacher, and the new GCSEs do nothing towards addressing this issue. A student with a reading age of 6 after 11 years of schooling and regardless of years worth of intervention, support, additional teaching, in-class support etc. is unlikely to reach a 4 or 5 in the GCSE and the new GCSEs are not going to magically make that child more able or more capable. The lower attaining students will continue to be viewed as liabilities because they affect the school statistics. We need to change this by focussing less on cut-off grades and only on progress. If the child made great progress then that should be reflected somewhere on their certificates. After all, a child making 1 level of progress from KS2 because they’ve done nothing for 5 years is not ‘better’ than a child who’s made 5 levels of progress but had a lower grade. Who’s achieved more in this time? Who’s worked harder? Whose work should be celebrated in terms of real commitment to their learning?