Earlier in the week Chris Cook, FT Education Correspondent, asked if anyone had written a logical explanation for the return of CSEs. To my knowledge, he couldn’t find one. However, I suggested that an explanation was possible and I think it is important that we lay out the reasons why the GCSE is problematic and why someone might suggest an altnerative. Simply pretending that GCSEs are great as they are, or pretending that CSEs are the only alternative option to the problems ofGCSEs, shows an egregious lack of imagination on both sides. There must be other possibilities to solve the problem of low achievement at GSCE and I thought I should lay out the issues and some solutions here so that we can have an honest debate about them rather than continue feeding into a tabloid frenzy of nostalgia.
So first, the actual policy problem: A small percentage of students each year gain nothing more than a handful of E- G GCSE grades which limit their options at college and which, if honestly declared on a job application form, may negatively impact their future. I asked Chris Cook to get the figures on this and using the NPD results I worked out that 7.7% of students receive only E grades or below. These are not ‘near misses’ – as would be the case for D grade students – these are students who significantly missed the C grade boundaries for every GCSE. It is not 25% as Gove proclaimed – 7.7% is a much smaller number – but it is a group that we need to think carefully about.
In most cases, the students described above – with a handful of very low grades – could have been predicted from before the start of their GCSE course in Year 10 (aged 14). In fact, in many schools they will have been predicted a very low grade. This prediction may not have been written on a document or told to parents (or even the pupil) because most schools have a policy of always adopting a challenging ‘target’ for each pupil in order to keep up high expectations and so tend to talk about this target as if it is a prediction. The decent justification for this charade is that if you allow a pupil, parent or teacher to start believing a child is destined for a lower grade then a self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in meaning the child becomes likely to get that low grade even if they would otherwise have had an ability spurt and done better. Unfortunately, this desire to have high expectations and pretend that students are not likely to get a lower grade sometimes means realistic discussions about what the student can do, and how they should best be supported, are missing.
Let me give an example: Say I teach Shana in Year 9 and she has opted for GCSE History. From my experience of Shana I know that she has an extremely low reading age, her extended writing is weak and her abstract thinking is under-developed compared to an average teenager. Most schools test pupils in Year 7 and again in Year 10 through a ‘general ability’ test and then use this data to see what someone with any given ability profile tends to go on and get at GCSE. Looking at Shana’s current level of ability what we see is that Shana is most likely to get an E in her GCSE History. In fact, if we look across all subjects Shana is most statistically likely to get 6 Es and 4 Fs when she leaves school. It’s not certain, but it is most likely. Leaving with 6Es and 4Fs means Shana will have demonstrated in her exams a very basic, potentially confused, understanding of all her subjects but she isn’t considered proficient in any of them [this being based on the idea that a ‘C’ grade is the mark of proficient – especially in Maths and English – and also that if you look at answers that get E grades in GCSE they probably wouldn’t be considered ‘proficient’ if shown to the average public].
The dilemma is: Should Shana continue with a 2-year course where we know that she will come out understanding very little about a lot of subjects, or is there something else we could do?
Now, I’ve had some Shanas who love history, who I know will work hard regardless of feeling lost, who will be incredibly proud of their E (or, D, C, etc), and who has a plan for college and life that will not be negatively impacted by her following History GCSE. In this case, I have never felt too concerned about Shana’s likely E, although maybe I should have done. It’s also true that the data is not saying that Shana must get an E. In some cases students end up with a result way above their prediction. But if we fairly assume that every child is in a school where teachers are trying hard to ensure their students get great grades, and every student works to capacity and yet the data still shows the majority of people in Shana’s position get Es then at some point we have to be realistic about what Shana is likely to walk away with. [It's also true that many students do NOT go to a school where every teacher is brilliant, and it's also true that many students do NOT work to their full capacity, meaning the data is actually even more likely to be accurate!]
Where I do get very concerned is where a student like Shana is lethargic about school, where they know in advance that they’re going to get an E [and it will require a lot of work just to get that], that they know that an E equates to not really understanding the subject all that well and hence, instead, they would bite your arm off for a chance to get really good at one or two things (and these could be rigorous academic things, just fewer of them) rather than ambling their way from one confusing GCSE classroom to another entirely lost in the number of concepts, terms and ideas just so that they can leave school with a vague notion of some things but unable to do any one thing really well. In this case I have often felt that there must be something that can be offered that would be better than yet another GCSE.
The simplest solution offered to this problem is ‘streaming’ – i.e. put all the students with expected lower grades in one groups and go through the GCSE syllabus more slowly. There are several problems with this: (1) Most non-core subjects don’t have enough students to stream in this way, (2) There are positive peer group effects that happen when students are in mixed ability groups, both in terms of behaviour and in terms of learning, but the biggest problem of all is this: All GCSE papers have a wide amount of content in them any of which can come up in the exam. This is true whether you teach a paper going across the entire grade range (e.g. History) or if you do a paper with a foundation/higher split. So even if you are teaching a lower set you must still push through a lot of ground to ensure that pupils have a chance of knowing what will come up. This leaves little time for a strategy of helping weaker students at least get to know some things well, rather than being confused about a lot of things, because you cannot skip content. If you do, and that is the main focus of the exam, then your student could well end up with a U rather than an E. And while an E may not be great for employment/college entry, a U is worse.
For this reason I can see why it might be beneficial to have a way that these students could cover less content, which would be learned more deeply, such that students who are weaker at 14 would still have an opportunity to grasp and learn rather than – as present – often become somewhat ignored in a classroom of 30 students rushing to get through a large syllabus.
However the thorny issue still remains about how you select the students who will take this ’lower’ exam paper and what pathways are opened up from it. Here are some possible ideas:
(1) Use ability tests as described above at 14 to predict where a student is likely to get a lower grade, report that likelihood back to parents and have them choose if they want their child to continue with GCSEs or undertake an alternative (maybe a CSE or a literacy and numeracy programme)
(2) If we are now keeping students in education to 18 why not slow GCSEs down for students likely to get E-G grades and have them complete over 4 years, sitting the GCSE at 18 rather than at 16 – this way the student could gradually develop the required skills over time rather than rushing through.
(3) Provide extra tuition in English and Maths (or other subjects) for students who are ‘predicted’ E-G grades at 14. This tuition could be compulsory extra hours before/after school, or it could be more flexible with an amount of money open to parents to be spent on a range of interventions, something akin to the personal health care packages now available for people with care service needs. I actually think this might be a better way of using the Pupil Premium – i.e. instead of targeting anyone on FSM, money is targeted on pupils at the lowest end, and instead of giving to scools provide the money as vouchers to parents to ‘buy’ the most appropriate services for their child to improve their results.
These solutions have their own issues and more thought would need to go into them. Indeed, any solution to this issue needs careful and considered argument which is why people are annoyed that it appears to be happening as a slanging match across newspapers. This is not about working out which generation had the ‘best’ exams, it is actually about ironing out the kinks in the education young people currently experience. There are always more choices than simply following the fork in the road that says ‘GCSE’ or ‘O-Levels’. Anyone saying otherwise is giving you a false choice. Education will be improved by forging a new path in the road rather than simply retracing the problems of our past.