Winners and Losers: GCSEs 2018



So results are in and, surprise, surprise, there’s not much change. A slight 0.5% improvement on ‘pass’ rates, but given that the new 4 was supposed to be equivalent to a C/D borderline grade, that’s to be expected. But wait… ‘pass’ rate? Aren’t there three other grades to consider here? Aren’t grades 1-3 passes too? It would seem not since government have firmly labelled not only 4s as ‘standard passes’ but also 5s as ‘strong passes.’ Who cares about the rest? The 33.9%? Meh. May they proceed onto endless resits, doomed to groundhog day repeats of failure for the next few years, their confidence dwindling to the point that they feel worthless. Who cares? Passes is what we’re after. Because, standards.

And passes we’ll get. Well 66.1% will get them. Almost without fail every single year. Because that’s what the system is set up to ensure. No matter that we have to pull the grade boundaries down. One Maths exam board had to lower Maths ‘standard pass’ rates down to 21% this year to ensure that the ‘right’ number of candidates passed. Ofqual had to rescue a whole group of higher tier Science students from U grades by getting examiners to remark them at foundation level so they could at least achieve grade 3s. And it’s probably right that they do so. We can’t have whole cohorts of students fall victim to the whims and follies of government ministers who throw the system into chaos and then skip off to another department. But it creates some very serious difficulties for us all.

For example, the new ‘harder’ A Levels were designed to challenge those pupils who had met the new harder standards of GCSE. But they haven’t ‘met’ that standard – they’ve just been given grades for lower marks. So the gap is even bigger putting more pressure on A Level teachers and creating difficulty for pupils.

And given that GCSE results are set largely in line with KS2 outcomes in English and Maths, what of other subjects? While there is, theoretically, a possibility that Ofqual will change those boundaries if exam boards make the case that a cohort of pupils were ‘better’ in, say PE, it rarely happens. Where is the incentive for exam boards to do so? How do they prove it? There is no baseline data for PE – only the performances of previous years, which were set in line with other subjects based on baseline data in English and Maths. And even the National Reference Test, that is designed to check whether progress is indeed linear, is only done in English and Maths. (And in February before GCSEs – to pupils who have just done mocks. A test to test that the test is working!) I’m not holding out much hope.

So for the pupil who has played sport all her life, or who has played musical instruments and gained grades in them, their potential grades in PE or Music are tied to how they did in Maths and English when they were 11. Consider also that these subjects, sitting outside of the EBacc, are opted into – that they are more likely to be chosen by students who  have an aptitude and existing experience. Tying their results to a cohort average across the whole range of subjects seems even more ridiculous. But it happens. Talk to statisticians at Ofqual and they will patiently tell you that the maths shows them that pupils who do well in SATs are indeed more likely to do well in PE/Art/Music etc. Of course it does. And not just because of the linearity of the measurements but also because of Psychology. A child will be given target grades in those subjects based on their SATs data. For five years they and their teachers will work to ensure they hit those targets: targets based on their performance in English and Maths when they were 11. Some, of course, will buck the trend. But most will become self fulfilling prophecies- statistically fulfilling prophecies. In order for the whole subject, across the whole nation, to buck that linearity, chief examiners across subjects will have to notice that on the whole, the cohort this year, seemed better than the last. And the last could well have been better too but standardised grade boundaries have driven them into the layered sediment of year upon year of results based on expectations. It’s hard to see in that sediment where there might have been improvements. They’ll have to notice and be motivated to act. Let’s face it, the chances are slim.

So we changed everything and nothing. And in the meantime, the ‘harder’ content and the removal/downgrading of aspects of assessment that allowed pupils to show skills other than performing in exams created another layer of stress for teachers, pupils and parents. There were more revision sessions, more schools moving to a three year GCSE, more reported cases of exam stress, mental health issues and self harming, more Easter holidays given up for study support, more worry, more money spent on resources…for what? So that a minister can stand up and say the reforms worked? We are now as competitive as Singapore and Finland?

It’s really no wonder that private schools are now almost exclusively rejecting the ‘new’ GCSEs and opting instead for the more stable IGCSE. No wonder either that Wales and NI decided to stick with the old system. The reforms sold to us to make us more internationally competitive and more like private schools, turned out to be a pup.  And meanwhile, leading experts on adolescent brain development such as neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, are pointing out to this profession that putting exam pressure on 15 and 16 year olds is one of the worst things we could do. That we would be far better testing them at 18 because their brains are literally at a critical stage of both emotional and intellectual change at 15 and 16. It’s like opening a pupae to check there’s a fully formed butterfly inside. It would seem we only want to be evidence informed when it suits us.

So why do we do it? Because we’ve always done it? Because the infrastructure of our schools was designed for a leaving age of 16 with optional education to 18? Because it’s just too hard to reconfigure that infrastructure into a system of primary, middle and high schools with an end assessment point at 18? Because our eyes are on another problem? Whatever the reason, it’s becoming clear that our exam system is not fit for purpose. It fails, habitually,  33% of our children. It places huge pressure on the mental health of pupils. It warps our perceptions of what constitutes good education, good teaching, a broad and balanced curriculum. It doesn’t even raise standards. It doesn’t even raise spirits.


14 thoughts on “Winners and Losers: GCSEs 2018

  1. Debra

    A nicely written summary, and if this was all about education then I would tend to agree with your conclusions. However it is I believe more about politics and egos, and from that perspective it does the job quite well.

    I studied curriculum design and assessment as masters modules in 1995 and all of this same stuff was being discussed. What has changed is that now every blogger and tweeter is an expert because they have read Willingham’s books and can describe the rudimentaries of cognitive load theory.

    I believe Rowntree said it succinctly when he said something like…..”we can’t measure what is important therefore we take what we can measure and make that important”.

    Making what we can measure and making it importat is what politicians tend to excel at…… again…..and again….and again.

    Keep safe and well

    1. Thanks Brian – yes. We’ve become slaves to a deadening desire for certainty that permeates across our society – not just in education. It’s a sorry state of affairs. You keep safe and well too.

  2. You are absolutely right Debra and Brian. We have the worst of all possible worlds – more cognitively demanding syllabuses and harder exams, placing great stress on students and teachers, but no guarantee that standards have actually been raised owing to the government (ie Ofqual), fiddling the system through allowing or compelling drastically reduced grade boundaries. For students to be able to get a ‘pass’ or any other meaningful grade when unable to engage with 80% of the questions reveals an education and assessment system that is not fit for purpose.

    The DfE seems to take the view that the way to raise standards is to make the exams harder and rely on market competition between schools to ‘work its magic’ without any regard for the complex issues surrounding the nature of learning and how it can be made more effective.

    There are three essential, interconnected requirements needed to reform our education system and make it fit for purpose.

    The first is for government to stop its ideological meddling with the education system. The second is to create a politically independent, state funded, answerable to parliament, commission of experts to manage, control and regulate the education system. Labour’s plans for a ‘National Educational Service’ mirroring the NHS would be a good start.

    The second is to ‘re-nationalise’ the entire education system, recreating ‘LEAs’ directly accountable to local communities through the ballot box.

    The third, and most important of all, is to destroy the ‘exam factory’ culture that even the new Chief Inspector at last recognises as a serious problem. This should be replaced by prioritising the cognitive and personal development of every child/student/adult at every level of ability.

    The tragedy is that we now have the knowledge and tools to bring this about, but it would look very different from what we now have. See this account of an accidental breakthrough in Finland led by our own Professor Michael Shayer.

  3. We are where we are. There will be no revolution in exam-edu.

    Look at Scotland. We still have LEAs – does such a system work ? Ask John Swinney, quick before he moves on ….

    1. Then the problems will continue to mount and be covered up, with the cover-ups causing more problems, which will be covered up, all escalating the out of control costs of Academies, Free Schools, MAT executives, etc which will be covered up causing more problems etc etc. All the time any valid measures of true standards retreat into a mist of smoke and mirrors.

      Whatever the true issues of the education system in Scotland, it faces nothing like this. Such problems they are have resulted from contagion from the English ‘exam factory’ culture.

      1. I suspect that the Scot-edu issues have a lot in common with those everywhere: barmy unions, legacy stuff, wrong directions etc My feeling is that exam factory does n’t make the list as kids need to show willing sometime

  4. The evident way to go is for a whole school to “under-perform” (deliberately) at KS2, by just enough not to get put into special measures, so that the base-line against which students’ progress up to GCSE is measured is lower, and even average performance at GCSE then appears to be improved. I can’t decide whether this process might need to be pushed back even earlier, to age 4 base-line assessment, but it might!

    1. To ask a class of 11 year olds to deliberately underperform so they can sacrifice themselves to change the system (which would have to be done on a large scale across many schools to have any impact)? Or to deliberately not teach them what they need to know? I’m not sure about the ethics of that plan to be honest.

      1. Debra – I certainly see why this idea makes you uncomfortable and I too could not go along with it. My reason would be the dishonesty involved, together with the recruitment of children into a political endeavour. It is political ideology that is driving our education system, so political action will be needed to remedy its failings; just not by children. There is no consensus of expert educational opinion that supports KS2 testing. I don’t think Francis is suggesting that the children should be deprived of quality teaching and essential skills and knowledge, just that they should deliberately fail their SATs!

        We should always be aware that SATs are not a qualification which is of any value to the children: they only benefit the primary school, while often penalising the secondary on the basis of duff statistics.

        Parents worry that SATs results are used to set children in their secondary schools, but research by John Mountford and myself has revealed that secondary schools do not trust SATs for this or any other purpose and use other forms of assessment (eg CATs) to make educational decisions. Much of the evidence for this can be found in this article.

        1. I assumed it was tongue in cheek. One obvious way of disrupting would be for parents to boycott the tests to make the data track unreliable (not that it isn’t already unreliable), but then boards will simply refer to legacy data as the sole source, so you still have norm referenced data.

  5. Roger and Debra,

    You’re both right in different ways. At first I wrote following an approach that I often find useful: without breaking the “rules” implicit in the situation, push them to the limit, particularly in one direction only, and see what happens. But as I lay in bed last night, without then having seen your responses to my original posting, I reflected more on what I had written.

    In the not too distant past, the Preparing For Exams disease probably only affected the final 18 months of the compulsory education experience, from about Easter time in year 10 (getting ready for the end-of-year exams), through the Mock exams on December/January of year 11, and leading up to the actual GCSE exams on May/June. The remainder of a child’s time at school could be, and often was, a time of preparation for life, learning about oneself, becoming socialised, and incidentally picking up the necessary skills for future life-long learning.

    Tdoday, this infection has become a plague, raging through the whole of schooling. All the joy of teaching has evaporated, all the joy of learning has vanished. School has become an oppressive child-minding machine, grinding down our young people with the continual threat of “failure”. The sickness is starting earlier and earlier. If we could liberate Ks1 and 2 from any thought of preparing for exams, even eliminate the damn things completely, then we would usefully lower the base-line on which progress towards GCSE is measured (as I said in my first posting), and this would simultaneously restore this phase of education to its proper purpose (for both teachers and children). For a while, our political leaders might try to carry on as Debra suggests, but at least proper education would have been regained at the primary stage, and the legacy data tactic would soon have to be abandoned in the face of political reality.

    The brightest times in my experience of teaching have been in special schools (in all permutations of physical, mental and behavioural inability to cope with mainstream schooling), where there has been minimal focus on exams, and maximum focus on adults and young people working together to find the best in each person.

    I could elaborate for many, many hours, but will spare you for the time being. I’m sure that others could join me more eloquently.

    1. You are right Francis, but it is worse than that. ‘Revision’ only really applies to memory. While memory, of course, plays a part in learning, on its own it is not enough. Understanding ‘hard stuff’ in any school subject requires the student to take possession of, and internalise complex, counter-intuitive concepts. Too much ‘revision’ means less time for the
      slow social learning that promotes cognitive growth and deep understanding. This was established decades ago by Piaget and Vygotsky and their current disciples Michael Shayer and Philip Adey, all of whom have been ignored by the US and UK governments in their promotion of a marketised and commercialised education system and its culture of incentive/reward/punishment behaviourism.

      Michael Shayer, with his Finnish colleagues, have made a major breakthrough by accident! This too is being ignored, but you can read about it here.

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