Let Us Not Pretend That GCSEs Are Perfect

 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.

12 thoughts on “Let Us Not Pretend That GCSEs Are Perfect

  1. O Level and CSE double entry for borderline C-D candidates was gut-wrenchingly awful. I’d rather see modifications to GCSE to make it flexible. How about an explicitly simplified or reduced foundation tier syllabus so you don’t have to teach as much to those who definitely won’t take higher tier, but retaining the single coherent qualification and specification? There has to be a better route than the old O Level and CSE split.

  2. You’re right, we do need to re-examine the examination system, and I don’t know what the solution is. I’m pretty sure it isn’t returning to a two qualification system as in the O Levels/CSEs of my school years. My two pence worth – I worked for 7 years in a sixth form centre and was one of the team doing the enrollment interviews at the start of the year. We had students enrolling on courses from Foundation through to A Level, in order to cater for all abilities. A student sat in front of me with an E in English told me more than a student with nothing at GCSE. Obviously they weren’t going to do A Levels, and possibly not an Intermediate course at that point in time, but I knew they had been to school reasonably regularly and that they had ‘stuck it out’ and been able to sit the exams necessary to get this qualification. It wasn’t ‘useless’ (I don’t think you’ve said this to be fair). I think our approach was a bit of that you’ve suggested here – that for some students it takes longer to get up to Intermediate level, but having had one go at it they stood a better chance of getting there than if their school hadn’t even felt able to enter them for the exam. This was 10 years ago, and I know things have changed substantially since then, so may not be true any more. I’m currently trying to persuade my reluctant EBD students that it’s worth their while to go for English GCSE even though they might not get more than an E, the current rhetoric about exams isn’t helpful!

  3. Laura

    A nicely reasoned argument and one I struggle to disagree with in any major way. I certainly agree about a small number of students having no real likelihood of obtaining 5 ‘good’ GCSE results. My concern, as I blogged, is that this makes up a much smaller proportion than the quarter to a third suggested in the Mail. Of course, the smaller the group who do a lower-level specification, the greater the stigma that could be attached to it.

    Although I see your point about parents (and presumably students?) having a choice based on data, parents are often wildly unrealistic about their offspring’s abilities. We see this now with Higher and Foundation discussions, for example. The idea of sitting the exams over a longer period is very interesting, and something I hadn’t considered.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  4. Thanks for the comments all. You’ve made me feel like this wasn’t such an outrageous thing to talk about and I think we’re all feeling the weight of trying to help students who are struggling while making sure that what they do isn’t undermined. It’s been one of the long-running sagas with BTECs, and I’m fairly certain damage has been done by the government’s constant insistence that some types of qualification are ‘worthless’ even when they reflect a great deal of effort.

    Martin – I thought about a similar idea, where students could take some full modules as part of the GCSE but not all the modules. So instead of doing 4 ‘easier’ modules they only do 2 modules but they do them fully. One of the issues for that is that if students are demonstrating the skill to the highest level at the end does that actually mean they are now an ‘A grade’ student in quality – if you will – but they will be marked down because they have only learned the content of 2 modules? It’s a tough one, but like you I think there must be a solution.

    Penny – I agree entirely on the E. It’s something I tell my students all the time. I worked several summers enrolling people at an FE college and I headed up a Sixth Form for a few years so I know the difference it can make. Guess we just have to keep going with advocating for these students.

    Ian – The parents one is a toughie. I sort of think if a parent wants to keep their child in the GCSE then they should have the choice – in the end, just like in health, there are some things that need to be decided by the patient (here: pupil) rather than by the ‘big professionals’.

  5. I totally agree that those who are struggling in school should be helped with subjects they find difficult. But why is it all about getting the highest possible grade? If a child is not naturally academic, giving him/her two extra years to be spoonfed the syllabus so that they can put a C or D on their CV won’t necessarily change their aptitude – or inspire a passion for learning.

    The thing is, not all young people are naturally academic – that’s why I think we need a schooling system that supports young people who may be better suited to a vocational route.

    It would also make it more difficult for a potential employer to sift through applications if a young person who took four years completing their GCSE is presented with the same grade as a young person who completed it in two.

    If we took the focus off grades and put it on to helping young people leave school with knowledge of what they can do with their particular skills, I think we’d be doing our kids a huge favour.

    1. I go backwards and forwards on this. At one time I would absolutely have agreed – why worry if someone isn’t good at maths or english? – but I have also become convinced by Alison Wolf’s arguments that (a) some subjects are important regardless of what you go on to do, I would say Maths & English are definites regardless, and (b) is it more rational to go for a broader education early on rather than specialising? For me, this means the best qualification would be one in which a student can be assessed in other ways for some parts of their qualifications – but that no one subject should dominate this – and that I do think every student should at least try to get *some* academic maths and english right through until 18.

      As I say though, I back and forward on it. Definitely don’t have a ‘fixed view’ yet.

  6. I like your idea of extending the “qualification” whatever it gets called into 4 years – after all if they have to stay at school what are they going to do – to have a slower,steadier grounding could well work. Sometimes it takes time for things to sink in and ATM time is something we don’t have with a relentless exam curriculum

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