It is that time of year already? Hundreds of thousands of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been receiving their GCSE results today. Overall, on average across all GCSE subjects this year’s results show a slight rise in A* to C grades, with 68.8% of entries scored A*-C, up 0.7 percentage points on last summer. However, there has been a sharp fall in English GCSE grades. The most significant impact on this year’s results has been the big fall in younger pupils taking exams a year early. Changes in the league tables discouraged schools from such multiple entries. With fewer young exam candidates, there was a sharp improvement in maths results where the percentage achieving A* to C grades rose by 4.8 percentage points to 62.4%.
What has changed this year? The biggest change in GCSEs this year was the return to linear exams – with all pupils sitting their tests in the summer at the end of the two-year course. So students have no longer had the option to take exams on the parts of the qualification at several points during their courses because so-called modularised GCSEs have been scrapped. There are a number of views on what impact this will have.
Many see the return to summer-only exams as toughening the qualifications – more knowledge has to be remembered all in one go. And with pupils sitting numerous subjects, it has been a congested exam timetable for many pupils. Some people see the removal of all those bitesize chunks of learning that characterised the modular system as an opportunity to engage in some deeper teaching and learning of the syllabus.
There have been changes to GCSE English/English language this year.
The major change here is that the results of the speaking and listening part of the qualification do not now count towards final English/English Language GCSE grades. The balance between exam and controlled assessment (where candidates complete work in a controlled class environment) has also been changed. Written exams now count for 60% of the English GCSE while controlled assessments will count for 40%. It used to be the other way round. English is particularly important to schools because it was one of the key subjects it is measured by in league tables.
Changes to the way GCSE results are measured in school league tables have discouraged schools from entering children early for their exams. This step was taken because data suggested that entering pupils for GCSEs earlier was not generally in their favour and the earlier they entered, the less well they did. Many schools entered many Year 10 pupils – those in their first year of GCSEs – for certain subjects such as English and Maths for a variety of reasons, including allowing pupils a couple of goes at the exam and giving potentially wayward students more of a focus by testing them earlier.
As a consequence of these changes, with only the first crack at the exam now counting for school accountability measures, there has been a huge drop-off in early entrants. The overall number of entries from students in Year 10 and below fell by 40% on the previous year. Some experts believe this change could lead to a slight rise in grades overall as many of the poorer candidates will not sit the exams inappropriately early.
As an A Level Science teacher and examiner for many years, I have seen a steady increase in the number of fairly bright students who are barred by their Schools from doing Higher Tier GCSE Science during their Year 10 Choices, which means the highest grade they can achieve is grade C. This effectively bars them from studying A Levels in Science. Schools do this cynically because very often they are putting their league table position as a priority over pupil future careers and national priorities for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). In my opinion, the interest of each individual pupil and national priorities must come first, which means giving pupils the opportunity to aim high and to realise their full potential.
It will be interesting to see if these results have any impact on the PISA League Tables for English, Maths and Science for 15-year-olds, where the UK is languishing at 26th in the world, behind the educational “superpowers” of Estonia and Liectenstein.
Dr Jon Cartmell
PhD MA(Cantab) MA DMS PGCE