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Are you ready for a possible drop in GCSE English grades this summer?

Some schools’ GCSE English grades may be lower this year than in previous years. If so, this may not be solely or even mainly the English Department’s responsibility – it’s the result of political decisions reaching back years, some of them not obvious. It may be helpful to know why a school’s grades may drop, how this situation has come about, how schools can prepare for a drop and how they can be sure to raise attainment in the future.

Grading this year

The new GCSEs are more demanding in several ways, but Ofqual says about the same proportion of candidates that attained A*/A in the current GCSEs will attain 9 – 7 in the new ones and about the same proportion that attained B/C will attain 6 – 4. There will be compensation for the increased difficulty and unfamiliarity of the new exams to protect the first cohort of students taking them – Ofqual’s policy of “comparable outcomes”. There will also be strict controls over how the Exam Boards mark papers and award grades.

But Ofqual’s policy of “comparable outcomes” relates to the national cohort of candidates: A*/A = 9 – 7 and B/C = 6 – 4 apply nationally, not to any individual school. This means that schools which are better prepared for the demands of the new specifications will do better than those that aren’t. Within the groups of grades (9 – 7, 6 – 4 and 3 – 1) grade boundaries will be allocated arithmetically in relation to the standards applied by the Boards under Ofqual’s supervision. So, for example, there may be far more 5s than 6s and far more 4s than 5s.

An interesting perspective on the new grades is provided by the DfE’s Progress 8 and Attainment 8 document, page 26. The new point scores for unreformed GCSEs are mostly reduced this year by the equivalent of a grade (1.0) or half a grade (0.5). The DfE has introduced these changes to ensure parity between results in the new and unreformed GCSEs, but the consequences are startling: for Progress 8, a B in Science or History this summer will be worth a C-and-a-half, a C will be worth a D and so on.

It seems that the DfE may be expecting lower overall attainment in the new GCSEs within the limits of Ofqual’s “comparable outcomes” as a reflection of their greater challenge, e.g. that there may be so many more grade 4s than 5s that it is fairer to reduce grade C in unreformed GCSEs from 5 to 4 points.

There will be major issues for schools about how to present results to parents and how to explain a drop in grades to parents and prospective parents. For a full paper on all aspects of this blog, see Preparing for possible lower grades this summer [PDF document].

How have we got here?

Schools are having to cope with the results of political decisions reaching back years. Briefly, the Labour Government introduced the National Strategies from 1997 to drive up standards of attainment and Ofsted, with DfE encouragement, required evidence of frequent assessment of students’ work to track their progress and most schools initiated a heavy programme of assessment against National Curriculum sublevels.

By 2008 Government accepted that, from the evidence of international surveys like PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS, that these policies weren’t working – attainment in schools was not rising. In 2008 the Secretary of State announced the Strategies being wound up and created Ofqual to research grade inflation. Ofsted dropped its requirement that every lesson should show progress.

The Coalition Government, elected in May 2010, continued Labour policies. There is a cross-party political aim of raising attainment in England’s schools towards those of higher-attaining educational systems and ending years of grade inflation. BUT although the National Strategies and the insistence on frequent assessment for tracking progress have both been abandoned by Government as discredited, Ministers have not made schools aware of this – Labour from reluctance to admit that its policies over 10 years were ineffective, the Coalition and Conservative Governments because advising schools about teaching and learning is contrary to their policy of promoting competition between schools.

So schools are being required to implement the most complex series of changes in the history of public examinations in England while in many cases being required to continue National Strategies and assessment practices which have been discredited because their SLTs, not having been informed differently, still believe they are necessary or desirable. Schools are also having to respond to the new GCSEs without authoritative advice. Instead of being provided with evidence-based strategies for raising attainment in response to the new GCSE demands, schools have mostly been left to glean ideas from ‘tips and tricks’ approaches offered by such sources as PiXL, TeachMeets and latter pages of the TES.

How should English Departments respond if their grades drop?

Obviously discuss the possibility with your SLT, having read the full paper for the evidence. Looking ahead, it may be time to review teaching and learning in the light of robust evidence-based research of what raises attainment. A good place to start is Professor Robert Coe’s paper Improving Education: a triumph of hope over experience [PDF document] and his recent Powerpoint What makes great teaching? [PDF document]. This shows what works best for raising attainment: metacognition/self-regulation, effective feedback, collaborative learning, structured discussion, peer-tutoring, mastery (but only if conducted through groupwork) and effective homework. Robert Coe summarises this approach as “Learning happens when people have to think hard” and, as he shows, focussing on thinking can transform teaching and learning.

Adopting these interventions may involve significant changes in style of teaching and learning, and this is achieved most successfully with in-school CPD led by an experienced practitioner on a continuing basis with active modelling of lessons. Philosophy for Children embodies this approach, but isn’t subject-related as preparation for GCSE needs to be; the same is true of Dweck’s growth mindset. Subject-based model lessons are provided only by Adey and Shayer’s Cognitive Acceleration which enacts Dweck’s growth mindset through Let’s Think in English.

If this is helpful, please read the full paper Preparing for possible lower grades this summer [PDF document]. After that, any queries to laurie.smith@kcl.ac.uk.

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