Heads unhappy with lack of government reassurance on new GCSEs

School leaders want “public acknowledgement” of the challenges this year’s reformed GCSEs have presented to teachers and pupils, but the Department for Education has refused to offer any new reassurance.

Some senior sector figures want the government to work harder to demonstrate it understands the difficulties schools have faced in implementing the latest GCSE reforms.

“A lot more could’ve been done to say this year is a rare year,” education consultant Tom Sherrington, a former head, told Schools Week.

Three cornerstone subjects, English literature, English language and maths, have all been adapted to include considerable new content, and other major subjects will follow next year.

Among other changes, pupils collecting their results tomorrow will now receive numerical grades – running from 9 to 1 – rather than A* to G.

However hard people work, Sherrington said, “only a certain number of students can get the grade 4 and above”, which is the equivalent of A* to C.

However, asked what assurances the Department for Education could give any headteachers worrying that unexpected results might jeopardise their jobs, a spokesperson simply pointed to a line in a letter from Justine Greening to the education select committee five months ago.

“The process used by Ofqual to avoid grade inflation will ensure that broadly the same proportion of pupils achieve the grade 4 and above this summer as achieved the grade C and above last year,” she wrote.

Many other heads have been in touch with Schools Week to outline their fears. Carolyn Roberts, head of Thomas Tallis School, described the response as “not particularly helpful”.

“The national obsession with making judgements about schools based on GCSE indicators has been actively harmful,” she said.

“The idea that you’ve got ‘football manager syndrome’ – one set of bad results and the head’s out – that’s what makes people anxious.

“It means they can’t settle down and build up the school to be performing well, because they’ve got to get the results on the nail this year otherwise they’ll be sacked.”

Stephen Tierney, the executive director at the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic multi-academy trust, told Schools Week that “there are a lot of nervous and anxious heads out there” and that the environment has felt “unsupportive”.

The government’s approach to the changes has too often been “someone coming on the telly making positive sounds”, rather than offering practical advice and guidance, he said.

Evelyn Forde, headteacher at Copthall School, said Ofsted inspections simply “should not be triggered based on these results”.

She added: “Governors should be fully aware of the inability to compare like for like and therefore have a measured response, rather than take drastic action which could lead to heads losing their jobs.

“Students and staff have worked phenomenally hard against a back drop of lack of resources and past papers so their results should be celebrated.”

For Liam Collins, the head of Uplands Community College, “this year is really a complete unknown”.

“Tomorrow is when we go into school and see whether I am packing my desk down or not,” he said.

The worry goes both ways, he added, because schools will either be “damned if our results are good because our curriculum is not wide enough” or “damned because our results aren’t good enough but our curriculum is alright”.

Ofsted was more forthcoming with reassurance, however.

“We understand that there is always more school-level volatility in results when qualifications change,” said a spokesperson. “We are providing inspectors with guidance, specific training and support from our data analyst team about what they can and can’t infer from individual schools’ exam results this year.”

She added that data would be used as “a signpost, not a destination for inspection” and the watchdog appreciates “this year’s data may be more variable at school level than usual”.

Malcolm Trobe, the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also sought to reassure members.

“We know that there is likely to be some variability in results at school level in the new GCSEs,” he said. “It is important to emphasise that these results cannot be compared with those of previous years.

“What we and our members most want is for results day to be a day of celebration for the achievements of pupils.”

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