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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.

Grading system further increases demand of new GCSEs

The details of the new GCSE grading system announced by Ofqual on 12 September further increase the demand of the new GCSE specifications.

Comment in the press has focussed on the smaller number of students who will receive the top grade (9) compared with A* but, much more important, the new mid-grade (5) will be 50 per cent more demanding than the current grade C and will be treated as the new grade C. This is shown by Ofqual’s comparison tables from Board paper for the new GCSEs in 2017 [PDF document], para 34.

Click on table to view larger version

Ofqual explains: “Grade 5 will be positioned in the top third of the marks for a current grade C and bottom third of the marks for a current grade B. This will mean it will be of greater demand than the present grade C, and broadly in line with what the best available evidence tells us is the average PISA performance in countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland.”
Grading the New GCSEs in 2017 – key points leaflet [PDF document].

The new grade 5 will therefore consist of equal marks from the top of grade C and the bottom of grade B. Ofqual is following Michael Gove’s instructions: “At the level of what is widely considered to be a pass (currently indicated by grade C), there must be an increase in demand, to reflect that of high-achieving jurisdictions”.

This emphasis on grade 5 – explained more fully in Ofqual’s Board paper for the new GCSEs in 2017, paras 39 – 49 ) – goes against the original idea of removing pressure on schools to achieve grade Cs. The logic of the Government’s policy is that, from 2017, schools will judged by Ofsted and others on the proportion of grade 5s and above they achieve.