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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.

Further research on effects of GCSE changes

Research on the combined effects of the new GCSE grading system and the new school accountability system based on it shows that:

  • schools’ point scores on which Attainment 8 and Progress 8 are based will fall sharply between 2016 and 2017
  • the new specifications and the grading and accountability systems have been designed to require schools to develop new approaches to teaching and learning. The policies behind this have cross-party support.

The new accountability system based on Attainment 8 (A8) and Progress 8 (P8) starts in 2016 with points for the current grades: A* = 8, A = 7, etc. In 2017, English and Mathematics will move to the new grades 9 – 1 with other subjects following a year later.

The transition will cause sharp falls in the point scores for English Language, English Literature and Mathematics, so that schools’ A8 and P8 scores will drop between 2016 and 2017. It is vital that schools understand the reason for this so that English and Maths teachers aren’t held responsible for the decline.

Longer term, there is cross-party agreement that standards of education in England need to be raised towards those of more successful countries and that the ‘tail’ of students leaving school with poor qualifications or none needs to be reduced. The main political parties agree that the new GCSE specifications and the grading system and accountability systems based on them should be:

  • more demanding in examination (end of course only), content and assessment (more challenging questions)
  • consistent in standard between the various Awarding Bodies
  • internationally referenced to standards in more successful jurisdictions
  • referenced to national standards over time by national reference tests in English and Mathematics
  • equitable so that all students’ grades count towards Attainment 8 and Progress 8, and
  • focussed on effective teaching through commissioning and promoting formal research into effective teaching methods through e.g. the Education Endowment Foundation and the London Schools Excellence Fund. For English, early influences include research-based presentations to DfE policymakers such as HMI’s Moving English forward and Robin Alexander’s presentation on oracy in February 2012.

Schools which understand the implications of these policies and respond to them effectively will be more successful with the new GCSEs, A8 and P8 than those that don’t. Unfortunately the DfE won’t provide guidance for schools, just as it won’t provide guidance on how to respond to the new National Curriculum without levels. It has a libertarian approach to teaching and learning, partly as a reaction to the target-driven approach of its predecessors and partly owing to its preference for free-market solutions. The Government believes that schools should respond to the demands of the new GCSEs by choosing between the products and advice offered by various providers.

Some products and advice will lead to greater success than others, but the downside of the Government’s free-market approach is that schools which choose ineffective responses to the policy changes will be less successful and their students achieve poorer results through no fault of their own. The effects of ineffective choices about teaching and learning will also exacerbated by changes in the grading system which will require schools to compete for the higher grades.

Schools are in an unprecedented situation. From September 2015, they need to teach examination courses for which some essential information about the required standards is currently unknown. In these circumstances it would be sensible to analyse the requirements of the new specifications and to make the best decisions possible in the light of available research. In a situation where various commercial providers offer solutions, it would be reasonable to ask for the academic research supporting what is offered and to make decisions according to the clarity and robustness of the evidence.

For a summary of the effects of grading and relevant research, 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.