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Using the positives in the new GCSEs

Everyone knows the new GCSE specifications will be harder with end-of-course exams, more demanding texts and more open-ended questions. Schools are also realising that the new grading and accountability systems will be more challenging with:

  • no C/D borderline – all grades count towards Attainment 8 (A8) and Progress 8 (P8)
  • four top grades A* – C replaced with six grades 9 – 4; lower point scores because many Bs will be worth 5 points instead of 6 and many Cs worth 4 points instead of 5
  • new mid grade 5 aligned with performance in some more successful countries and harder than grade C.

But the positives of the new arrangements haven’t been noticed so much:

  • narrower mark ranges for grades 9 – 4 so that, with appropriate teaching, students can move up the grades more easily
  • success will depend on using students’ natural curiosity to explore texts, not ‘spoon-feeding’ them – see HMI’s Moving English forward (2012)
  • the National Strategies approach and repeated APP/PiXL-type assessment are now seen by DfE and HMI as failing to raise attainment
  • all grades count towards A8 and P8 so all students’ attainment is important
  • mixed-ability teaching becomes worth exploring
  • Ofsted inspections will be fewer from 2016 and conducted by HMIs only.

What is really going on?

There is a cross-party agreement on the need (a) to raise attainment in English schools towards that of more successful countries and (b) to reduce the ‘tail’ of students who leave school with poor qualifications or none (the pupil premium is part of this). These policies are set out in the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching, but Labour (who set up Ofqual) agrees. The new system requires schools to focus on the quality of teaching, as set out by HMI and others, instead of National Strategies-type formulaic teaching and repeated assessment as promoted by previous governments.

The main political parties want schools to use research-based teaching methods to raise attainment and the DfE has provided £115+ million for the Education Endowment Fund and other bodies to research successful methods. This is a reversal of 20 years’ policy on teaching and learning, but the DfE won’t give schools any guidance, just as it won’t give any guidance on assessing students now National Curriculum levels have ended. The Government believes in competition between schools and so is leaving them to choose whichever teaching and assessment approaches they wish.

However, schools that choose less effective approaches will achieve less well than others in the new Ofqual-controlled GCSEs and the rigorous, completely objective A8 and P8 accountability system.

For an account of these issues, see Effects of new GCSE grading system summary (PDF document). For a fully referenced version, see Effects of new GCSE grading and accountability revised (PDF document).

The DfE School Accountability Powerpoint (PDF document) is also attached for reference.