Should we make the GCSE pass rate harder? Mark Dawe and Nick Gibb

Should we make the GCSE pass rate harder? Mark Dawe and Nick Gibb

These opinion columns originally appeared on pg11 of Schools Week edition 34

Mark Dawe - 'What about the pupils caught in the middle?'

The numbers deemed a fail by the government at GCSE are likely to increase 15 to 20 per cent in summer 2017. That will mean a lot more resits in a system already under tremendous strain. And what about schools already struggling to meet their accountability measures?

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has confirmed that a grade 5 will be considered a “good pass” for reformed GCSEs with their new 9-1 scale. This surely means that all the new maths and English GCSEs just got harder to pass. The current grade C straddles the lower part of a grade 5 and the upper part of grade 4. In simple terms that means a group of people who would have got a C under the current system will get a 4, or a “fail” (not a good pass?) under the new system.

Various crude calculations have been put forward to suggest just how many more people won’t get a good pass in summer 2017. The predictions are all guesstimates but it looks like the numbers deemed a fail by the government are likely to increase 15 to 20 per cent. In reality these figures may prove a bit on the high side. The policy is intended to encourage teachers and students to raise their aspirations, a laudable objective that, as the introduction of the A* at A-level indicated, is certainly possible – given that we have what is often championed as the best cohort of teachers.

It would be wrong to condemn the government for wanting to raise the bar"

However, there will undoubtedly be some kind of sharp drop. This may not be the triumph of social justice for which the Department for Education hopes, but it is designed to put our educational expectations on a par with the Finns, the Canadians and the Swiss.

We have to assume the change will have significant repercussions. The new pass will presumably mean a lot more young people being consigned to re-sit English and maths as part of their post-16 studies. And that will put further strain on a system struggling to recruit and pay for enough tutors of maths and English, tutors who can find new and stimulating ways to engage young people with qualifications that they may well have developed an aversion to.

It will make it harder to reach the target the government has set itself of three million completed apprenticeships within this term of office. Indeed, it may mean that Nick Boles, the minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will have to dust off that report he commissioned from the Education and Training Foundation just before the election that rightly described functional skills and Cambridge progression as valuable alternatives to GCSE. And the new pass will be something of a hospital pass for those schools struggling to meet their accountability measures. To be clear, Ofqual’s “comparable outcomes” methodology means that when the first new GCSEs are awarded, that national cohort will achieve much the same outcomes as previous cohorts. This is designed to ensure that, even with wholly new qualifications, the standard remains broadly the same. By keeping results the same year-on-year, comparable outcomes was always a problem for schools because Ofsted set measures that require year-on-year improvement. The new good pass will make things even harder and schools can only achieve their targets at the expense of other schools.

Of course, we could tell ourselves that what governments decide is the metric for a good pass isn’t the same thing as what employers, higher and further education will consider for recruitment purposes. Supply and demand come into the equation and not everybody will be demanding a grade 5. But many, especially employers, will struggle to know how to interpret the new grades and declarations from the government will be a powerful influence.

None of this is simple. It would be wrong to condemn the government for wanting to raise the bar and for aspiring to results that match the best in the world. But for young people caught in the middle, and for an education system caught up in a whirlwind of reform, this feels like something that should only be introduced after careful planning and modelling and widespread consultation with schools, colleges and the young people it will affect.

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Nick Gibb - 'We are not prepared to accept the status quo'

The new GCSEs will be challenging. But schools are in an excellent position to deliver qualifications that at last will prepare students to succeed in a demanding economy.

In September, schools will begin teaching the new maths and English GCSEs to year 10. These qualifications, and others that follow in 2016 and 2017, are the product of five years of work following the curriculum review that started under the Coalition government in 2010.

The purpose of our reforms has been clear from the start: to equip our young people for life in a competitive world, and to ensure that the standards we expect in our schools match those of the highest performing systems around the world. Delivering social justice requires high aspirations and extending opportunity, not low expectations that leave some young people short.

Before 2010, international benchmarks showed that the performance of English pupils was stagnating. Despite this, GCSE results were inflating. In 1994, the first year in which the A* was awarded at GCSE, 10.5 per cent of grades were either A* or A. By 2013, 22.6 per cent of grades were A or A*.

Those running our education system had false confidence that standards were rising, when the truth was that our qualifications were becoming devalued and were failing to prepare students to succeed in a demanding economy. Recent Ofqual research looking at level of demand in the maths GCSE shows that current GCSEs are easier than their equivalents in many high-performing countries. We are doing young people a disservice if we award them qualifications that do not reflect the high expectations of employers.

We were not prepared to accept this status quo. We introduced linear examinations, ended resits of individual units, and strengthened individual subjects by, for example, increasing the requirement for accuracy of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

The new maths and English GCSEs represent gold standard qualifications"

In developing the content for the new GCSEs, we have consulted widely with teachers, employers and subject associations. I am confident that the new maths and English GCSEs represent gold standard qualifications for our young people, which will command the respect of employers, colleges and universities. For the first time, the new maths GCSE will require students to study vectors and conditional probability, and learn key mathematical formulae by heart to improve their fundamental fluency. In the new English GCSE, students will have to read a wide range of classic literature fluently – including 19th-century novels, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.

To differentiate the new GCSEs from existing qualifications, they will use a new 1-9 scale, in which 9 represents the top grade. We announced last week that the level of a “good pass” in the new GCSE will be set at a grade 5. This is equivalent to top third of the marks for a current grade C and bottom third of the marks for a current grade B in the current GCSEs.

The higher standard is in line with the average performance in high-performing countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It would not be possible to justify placing our bar lower than those of our international competitors.

The comparable outcomes approach used by Ofqual will protect students from any volatility caused by the introduction of new qualifications. In the longer term, Ofqual is introducing a national reference test to measure changes in performance across cohorts as pupils and teachers rise to the challenge of the more demanding standard. We will put in place an initial transition period in 2017/18 and 2018/19, so that students aged 16-19 will only be required to retake English and maths where they fail to achieve at least a grade 4. From 2019/20 onwards, we intend to align the funding condition with the new good pass at grade 5.

Every teacher knows that it is only by holding – and sticking to – the highest expectations for young people that we provide them with the opportunity to succeed. These reforms deliver on our commitment to social justice, and represent a balanced plan to ensure that more students leave school equipped for a successful future.

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