'We are rubbing pupils' noses in disappointment' - union boss

GCSEs “rub the noses of pupils in disappointment”, the leader of headteachers’ union ASCL will say today, as he calls for changes to an exam system that denies a third of pupils the “dignity” of a qualification.

Geoff Barton will address ASCL’s annual conference in Birmingham this morning, hot on the heels of an interim report by the union’s “Forgotten Third” commission, which is looking into the plight of pupils who don’t achieve at least a grade 4 in English and maths at GCSE.

More than 180,000 pupils, around a third of all entrants, failed to reach that standard in 2018. ASCL is worried they are let down by the current system, which implies that they are failures because the government considers a grade 4 a “standard pass”.

“What does it feel like on GCSE results day to go and collect your results when you have gained a grade 3 in English and maths?” Barton will say as he addresses 1,000 school and college leaders.

“As soon as we deem a grade 4 a ‘standard pass’, and a grade 5 the more aspirational ‘strong pass’, where does that leave you with your grade 3?

“What are we as a nation saying to a young person who after 12 years of being taught by teachers through early years, primary and secondary education, gets a grade 3 and then two years of mandatory resits. Why do we insist in rubbing their noses in disappointment?”

In its interim report, the Forgotten Third commission has floated the idea of a “national certificate of confidence” to replace GCSE English language. The qualification would value achievements in speaking, listening, reading and writing of all 16-year-olds.

The commission has also called into question the government’s policy of forcing those who did not reach a grade 4 in English and maths to resit the subjects throughout their time in post-16 institutions. The requirement has placed a huge burden on many schools and colleges, and even the government has accepted there are huge problems with the rule.

At the centre of the problem is the government’s system of comparable outcomes, which is used to guarantee that roughly the same number of pupils achieve each grade every year.

“Last summer, there were nearly 190,000 children who didn’t achieve at least a grade 4 in English and maths,” Barton will say today. “This year, because of the way our examination system works, determined not to allow accusations of grade inflation, there will be a similar number.

“How can it be right that so many young people emerge without qualifications which are viewed as a passport to further study and future employment? We do this in the name of rigour apparently. But are we in fact judging the success of the majority by the perceived failure of the minority?”

Pressed on the issue during a press conference with journalists at the event yesterday, the education secretary Damian Hinds said it was a “reality of examinations” that only some pupils would pass, and insisted he would not change the current GCSE system.

“The reality of qualifications is that there are pass marks, and when a young person gets a qualification, they have to be able to have total, full confidence in it and employers have to know that when they see it, they have to have full confidence in it, and know that it really represents something, and that’s one of the reasons we have grades in exams.

“And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not about to change that system. But I do want to make sure the opportunities are there if you miss out on getting to that level, there should be opportunities in the short-term for you to try again.”