Our GCSE system and its devastating collateral damage

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Our GCSE system, with its comparable outcomes basis, undervalues the achievements
of too many students. This must end, says Geoff Barton

The exams season is upon us once again and I know many readers of SecEd will be doing everything possible with their teams, in a characteristically calm and reassuring way, to ensure your students are as prepared as possible.

I also know the students you will be most concerned about are those you are trying to get on the right side of the GCSE cliff-edge of a Grade 4, particularly in English and maths. You will know, better than anyone, how high the stakes are for these young people.

At ASCL, our concern is that the current system is constructed in a way which means far too many young people fall on the wrong side of that cliff-edge. It consigns around one-third of 16-year-olds to attaining less than a “standard pass” in English and maths each year – qualifications which are seen as a passport to onward progression in education and are required for entry to many careers.

The reason this happens lies in the system of “comparable outcomes” under which, at national level, the percentage of pupils achieving the respective grades is roughly aligned with the outcomes achieved by previous cohorts of similar ability.

There are good reasons for this system. It means that, all things being equal, students can expect their work to be rewarded in a similar way from one year to the next. However, at the same time, comparable outcomes have become a millstone, locking thousands of young people (around 190,000 last year) into achieving less than a standard pass in English and maths combined.

There will not be many successful countries who think it acceptable that after 12 years of education, so many young people get a grade which cannot be deemed a standard pass. It is a devastating level of collateral damage.

To tackle this issue, ASCL has launched a Commission of Enquiry into “The Forgotten Third”. It is focused on English, although many of the questions it asks could also be applied to maths. The Commission has already published an interim report (March 2019) and its final report will be published in June. Among the questions it asks are:

  • Is there an argument for replacing GCSE English language with some kind of National Certificate of Competence which values achievements in speaking, listening, reading and writing of all 16-year-olds? And what is the future for online assessment in the 21st century by “stage” not “age”?
  • Should students have to resit GCSE English and maths post-16 when the failure rate is so high? There is strong emerging evidence that compulsory resitting is not working and is a significant waste of student potential and teachers’ resources (SecEd, 2019).
  • Should we retain an assessment and examination system that year-in, year-out creates a “forgotten third”? How might we do things differently?

In the interim report, Commission chair Roy Blatchford says this is about changing the thinking space and warns that the profession feels “imprisoned by the system”.

He writes: “The continuing existence of ‘the forgotten third’ in our national schooling and examination system demands both a moral and practical solution.”

These are not easy issues to solve, and we are acutely aware of the fact the exams system has undergone a huge overhaul recently and we now need a period of stability. But we must develop some practical, deliverable policy solutions for the future.

Whatever the complexities, the basic premise itself is simple. Surely we can find a way of ensuring every 16-year-old, at the end of 12 years of schooling, is able to attain the dignity of a qualification that is recognised, valued and of which they can be proud.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • The forgotten third: Commission of Enquiry (interim report), ASCL, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2TPb336
  • GCSE English and maths post-16 re-sits under scrutiny as only one in five students pass, SecEd, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2V0Sz06


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