GCSE English verdict: ‘Something went badly wrong’


Following the High Court ruling against a GCSE re-grade, Nick Weller calls on the DfE to 'stop facing both ways' on standards and accept that as schools improve, results will go up.

Something went badly wrong with last summer’s English GCSE results, and many C grade students were awarded D grades that they did not deserve.

There was tremendous pressure on schools in 2012 to improve results, from both Ofsted’s new framework for inspection and from the DfE’s demand that at least 40 per cent of students in every school gain five A* to C grades including English and maths.

Schools responded by working even harder with students on the C/D borderline, with more teacher time spent with this group, greater support, more encouragement and extra revision sessions to help them reach their potential. Schools were at the very limit of the support they could give to this group.

So many students had been awarded C grades in January, that by the time some students came to take the exam in the summer it was clear to the exam boards that pass rates were set to rise significantly in English. 

At this point, as the correspondence between them shows, Ofqual instructed the exam boards to lower the grades of students who sat the exam in the summer in order to rebalance the books.

It is the job of Ofqual to ensure that rigorous standards are applied consistently and fairly across all schools. They need to abandon their crude methodology for predicting the total number of C grades to be awarded each year and stop instructing exam boards on how many C grades there “ought” to be.

Instead, they need to be clear what standard of work a C grade represents, and ensuring that any student who meets this standard is awarded the grade they deserve, no matter which exam board they are taking or when they sit the exam.

Above all, the DfE must stop facing both ways on standards. On the one hand, they are committed to a relentless and admirable drive for school improvement; on the other, they are paranoid that any rise in overall pass-rates will be derided as so-called “grade inflation”. 

As schools do improve and as students do achieve more in their education, exam results will improve. We need a system which recognises this: if not, the unfairness and injustice of last summer will be repeated more and more in the future.

  • Nick Weller is vice-chair of the Independent Academies Association.

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