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Primary Education News
News Fall in GCSE grades blamed on school 'exam factories'
Concerns raised as 'damaging' targets lead to big rise in multiple exam entries
Pupils are being pushed into taking exams early and often to meet "damaging" official targets, according to exam board heads in the wake of a larger than expected fall in national GCSE grades.
The charges were backed by figures showing a sharp rise in 15-year-olds taking GCSE exams and performing well below 16-year-olds, as figures revealed the biggest fall in GCSE grades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since the exam was first introduced in 1986.
While the headlines showed a fall in the number of exam entries reaching the government's target range of A* to C – down by 1.3 percentage points to 68.1% – data dividing entrants by age told a different story: a more stable performance by 16-year-olds, dragged down by the increasing numbers of 15-year-olds taking exams halfway through their courses.
The results set off accusations that schools were using early entry and encouraging pupils to retake papers multiple times in an effort to clear the government's targets and avoid sanctions.
The sharp rise in multiple exam entries was most marked in the key subjects ofmaths and English, which are benchmark requirements for schools on the government's achievement targets. The multiple entries for maths included two pupils taking eight different versions of the GCSE exam in a year.
Katja Hall, the CBI's chief director of policy, said: "The sheer scale of multiple and early entries is astonishing.
"Employers don't want exam robots – they want young people who are academically stretched, rounded and grounded.
"Turning schools into exam factories and cramming two years' syllabus into one benefits no one. A GCSE should be an assurance of ability, not a consolation prize for surviving months of continual testing and retesting."
State schools that fall below a floor of 40% of pupils getting five "good" GCSEs – grades of A* to C, including English and maths – risk immediate reinspection by Ofsted. Fear of that outcome and uncertainty caused by erratic marking regimes in last year's English GCSE appear to have caused state schools to use early and multiple entries to avoid falling below the floor standards.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, said there was clear evidence of repeated, multiple entries, and that students were taking "an inordinate number of maths GCSEs". "I think it's doing real damage to education in this country," he said.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The government needs to recognise that raising the bar on GCSE grades at the same time as it raises the A*-to-C GCSE floor target puts huge pressure on schools, especially those in challenging circumstances.
"I do have concerns about multiple entry and the unnecessary pressure this puts on students, but we need to look at why this is happening. There is huge pressure on schools and on individual students to achieve a C grade and this can create perverse incentives which lead to unintended consequences."
A spokesman for the Department for Education said the government had already announced plans to reform its achievement measures, and that its new, linear GCSEs would make multiple entries more difficult.
But the DfE said it was "considering further action" to discourage early and multiple exam entries.
"Schools should not be entering children for exams early, and then for resits, or other exams in the same subject. It is not good for pupils and should not happen," the DfE said.
"It is clearly a worry that some schools might be putting pupils for early entry so they can 'bank' a C rather than studying the subject for another year and perhaps getting a better grade."
Exam regulator Ofqual cautioned against drawing conclusions from this year's results. "These changes in entry patterns make it difficult to fairly compare the overall results in 2013 with results in 2012 – we are not comparing like with like," Ofqual said. "The effect of early entry in particular is striking and appears to be largely responsible for the drop in overall pass rates."
Just 14.2% of papers sat by 15-year-olds received top A* or A marks, compared with 23.8% of 16-year-olds, with an even bigger gap between the age groups achieving grades A* to C.
"Early entry does not benefit students," said Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR examination board. "These qualifications are designed for 16-year-olds, and there's a 10% difference in the pass rate. That's not good for the students. They should be left to learn for those two years and then take the exam."
Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications showed that 1.3m GCSE maths papers were sat during 2013, although just 888,000 individuals actually took the exams. More than 100,000 pupils – 11% of entrants – took maths papers three or more times.
There was no change, despite the upheaval, in the gap in achievement between boys and girls. Nearly 25% of girls' entries gained at least an A grade, compared with fewer than 18% of boys' entries.
There was finally some good news on modern languages, after last week's dismal A-level entries.
The joint exam board figures showed a steep rise in Spanish, French and German exam entries after years of decline, which education minister Elizabeth Truss said was the result of the government's new English baccalaureate, awarded to teenagers who achieve at least a C in English, maths, science, history or geography, and a foreign language.