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The DfE expects GCSE grades to drop next year (but less able students may limit the fall)

Since the Coalition Government was elected in May 2010, the DfE hasn’t provided any guidance for schools on how to respond to the many changes in curriculum and assessment. This is deliberate and stems from the Government’s belief in schools competing for students. The Government has established new exams and consistent marking through Ofqual and left all decisions on teaching and learning to schools. The changes are presented by the DfE as technical and schools are left to interpret what they mean in practical terms.

Careful study shows that the DfE expects grades to fall when the new GCSEs are introduced. This is shown by the New point score scales for unreformed GCSEs, see pages 25/26, Annex A. These are the point scores for the unreformed (legacy) GCSEs in 2017 and 2018 which stay on an 8 point scale (A* to G) when new GCSEs like English and Maths move to the new 9 – 1 scale.  

Table A.1 New point score scales for unreformed GCSEs

GCSE grade 2016 Points 2017/2018 Points
G 1.00 1.00
F 2.00 1.50
E 3.00 2.00
D 4.00 3.00
C 5.00 4.00
B 6.00 5.50
A 7.00 7.00
A* 8.00 8.50

As you see, the DfE expects schools’ scores for grades B to F to drop by 1.0 (a GCSE grade) or 0.5 (half a grade) as the new exams are taken. The drops for unreformed (legacy) GCSEs are intended in fairness between subjects to match the expected drops in English and Maths in 2017 and other new GCSEs in 2018. It is reasonable to expect such a drop as students always perform less well in new examinations because of teachers’ unfamiliarity with them and the new GCSEs are also more demanding in several ways.  

This doesn’t apply to A which has no drop or A* which is given an increase of 0.5. The reason for this is a combination of three statistical factors: the two top grades (A*/A) will be replaced by three (9 – 7); to ensure comparable outcomes between the two grading systems, the same proportion of candidates will be awarded these three grades as A*/A in the last year of the unreformed GCSE; and grades 9 – 7 will be awarded to these candidates in the proportions 20:40:40. The new point scores for A and A* represent this situation most closely, though they are also a temporary buffer for high-attaining schools which will disappear when the new grades apply for all subjects.  

Another unnoticed implication is that it may well be easier in the early years of the new GCSEs for less able students to build up higher Progress 8 scores than able ones: put technically, that students with low KS2 fine-level scores can attain grades above expectation more easily than students with higher fine-level scores.  This is because, as mentioned, the numbers of grades 9 to 7 will be capped at the same proportion of candidates attaining A*/A in the last year of the subject’s current GCSE. Competition for these grades will be ferocious, particularly from high-attaining schools (including selective and independent ones) whose reputation depends on them.  But there will be no such competition, of course, for the lower grades and students who are taught appropriately are likely to build up higher P8 scores than the more able.

For the evidence, see Really raising standards in GCSE English full version [PDF document], pages 8 – 11 and Appendix 2.

The upshot of this is that schools which continue to concentrate on their most able students are likely to see their P8 scores drop into the negative after 2018, but schools which already provide appropriate teaching for all their students, including the less able, are likely to have rising and positive P8 scores. This follows from the cross-party policy to raise attainment by students who currently leave school with poor qualifications or none, which is the underlying purpose of Progress 8.  The productivity of English workers is lower than that in most other advanced economies and our divided education system, by which only A* to C have counted, is now accepted as a major cause of this.

The message of Progress 8 is that schools need to do their best to help all their students attain the best possible GCSE grades. For practical help, see Really raising standards in GCSE English flyer [PDF document].