The exam results fall-out

Written by: Ian Toone | Published:

GCSE and A level results: there has been some welcome stability but budget cuts and wholesale reform mean there are still deeper rumblings. Ian Toone takes a look

This year’s GCSE and A level results, announced last month, seemed to herald a welcome stability to the examinations system, but is this masking deeper rumblings beneath the surface?

It is remarkable that A level results have remained relatively stable, with only a negligible rise in the overall A* to E pass rate (up 0.1 per cent from 98 per cent last year to 98.1 per cent this year). However, while the proportion of A* grades has remained constant (at 8.2 per cent), the proportion of A* to A grades has continued to decline.

While this decline may be regarded as very slight (from 26 per cent last year to 25.9 per cent this year), this sustains a deteriorating trend stretching back to 2011, when the exams regulator, Ofqual, toughened its approach to stemming the tide of so-called “grade inflation” by imposing stringent parameters on both overall pass rates and the number of top grades.

Ofqual’s use of “comparable outcomes”, whereby results which this year’s A level students achieved seven years ago in key stage 2 SATs, and in GCSEs two years ago, are used to cap A level results, effectively means that those schools which succeed in raising the performance of their pupils can only do so at the expense of other schools.

While it is true that Ofqual allows its statistical parameters to be breached in exceptional cases, such cases are heavily regulated so as not to disturb the “big picture” of statistical quiescence. At the same time, schools are facing tougher floor targets and inspection regimes designed to raise performance to higher and higher levels.

All this is taking place against a backdrop of incessant austerity cuts, which are causing many schools and colleges to struggle financially.

This year saw a decline in the numbers of candidates taking A levels in biology, chemistry and physics. Part of the reason for this decline seems to be that many A level providers are finding it difficult to sustain courses in the sciences because of severe budget cuts. It seems to be the case that students are being guided into taking less expensive courses, a suggestion fuelled by the news that A level entries in subjects such as geography, mathematics, history and English literature are up this year.

Regardless of the relative merits of taking one subject rather than another, it cannot be in the best interests of either students or society as a whole for subject choice to be determined more by funding constraints than by students’ abilities, interests and ambitions.

Budget cuts are known to be particularly severe in the 16 to 19 sector, where it has proved particularly difficult to recruit the additional maths teachers needed now that students who achieve below a grade C at GCSE are required to continue their study of mathematics post-16. Schools are facing a similar problem as the new maths GCSE requires more teaching time to cover the increased content, thus necessitating more maths teachers.

Further turbulence is looming, as all GCSE and A level specifications are being reformed over the next few years, and yet no money appears to have been put aside for implementing these changes. New specifications generally require new resources, training and development, but where will the money come from to fund these necessities? It may be true that education funding has been ring-fenced, but while budgets remain frozen, costs continue to increase, such that many schools are having to increase class sizes, cut subject choice, and reduce staffing levels.

The funding situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are huge historical disparities across the country, with some local authorities receiving nearly twice as much funding per-pupil than others. The present government has promised a fairer funding formula. We wait with bated breath.


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