August 21, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Statistics on GCSE can be and have been misleading for quite a while now. But that has been changing.
Not so long ago an acquaintance of mine, who had just become a director of a chain of academies, showed me an email that had bewildered him. It had the headline of 91% of an academy ‘s students getting 5 ‘good GCSEs’, which at the time meant 5 A*-C grades in any subject. Underneath that headline was, in much smaller type, a figure of 29%, which was how many students had 5 A*-C grades, including in English and Maths. My acquaintance was surprised that any school would be allowed to say a pupil reached their GCSE targets without getting at least a C in English and Maths. About 5 years ago, that was changed.
Then there was the issue of ‘GCSE equivalents’. These included BTEC and NVQ qualifications in subjects such as leisure and tourism, childcare, construction and hair & beauty. If you did a BTEC National level 2 course for your GCSE, which was 100% coursework, and got a merit, you would be awarded the ‘equivalent’ of 4 C grades at GCSE. The eagle eyed amongst you would spot then that as long as that pupil got C in English and Maths they would reach the target of 5 good GCSEs without having to get a C in any sciences, history, geography etc.
I am not in anyway belittling the importance of these qualifications. I have seen close up at my last school how brilliant they are at keeping children who aren’t very academic engaged and achieving within the school system. But, they shouldn’t be presented as academic qualifications, which is what they were, up until this year. What was happening was that schools were tempted to shovel a lot of pupils into these vocational qualifications as they could, because being 100% coursework they were easier to achieve higher grades in, and that meant they could be seen to be achieving their target number of pupils with 5 A*-C grades. This was at the expense of more traditional academic qualifications such as history and geography, but also might be at the expense of that child’s future, as applying to university with non-traditional subjects at GCSE can make it harder. What is key is to ensure that a pupils’ choices are right for them, not for the school’s positin in league tables*.
So this year, the GCSE tables only include a school’s performance in what are known as the ‘Progress 8’. These 8 subjects include a double weighted maths and English element, three ‘EBacc’ subjects (science, history, geography, computer science, languages etc) and three further subjects that the government has determined a “high value qualification”, a list of which will be published every year and include some of the creative arts but also some vocational qualifications. Now, again the eagle eyed amongst you may reel at the thought of this level of government intervention. But if this way of measuring progress helps make sure schools support pupils in making choices that are best for their particular needs, then all the better.
The fact is that for many years it was assumed that higher grades meant higher standards. But that wasn’t so. Our educational system still needs a fundamental overhaul, for instance to raise the prestige of vocational qualifications. But the answer shouldn’t have been to call them academic subjects. This year marks real progress, and long may it continue.