22 Aug '13

News GCSE results do not testify to any dramatic change in standards

Figures simply show how schools are responding to incentives created by changing system of accountability and league tables

Although this year's drop in A* to C GCSE grades is likely to be hailed by the government as evidence of a return to rigour, a closer look shows that English and maths grades for 16-year-olds have in fact stayed roughly the same.

The results reveal ways in which schools are responding to the incentives created by the changing system of accountability and league tables.

The slight fall in grades is partly the result of a decision to make the separate science subjects more challenging. The Ebacc, which measures school performance according the proportion of pupils gaining A* to C grades in English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language, has also led to more entries in separate sciences.

A further cause of the slight decline in grades is the increase in early entries for GCSEs. Schools use early entries to maximise their haul of A* to C grades for the league tables.

The way this works is that a 15-year-old who is likely to be able to achieve a C in maths or English is put in for the exam. Once they've got the C grade, they can drop maths or English and focus on their other subjects. This is clearly damaging for pupils' performance.

This year, 31% of all GCSE entries by 16-year-olds achieved grade A or A* compared with only 20% for 15-year-olds. Fifteen-year-olds accounted for 10% of entries in English and a shocking 22% of entries in maths.

A more encouraging trend is the increase in entries for languages; there has been a 19% increase in entries for French. Entries for single sciences also increased, and girls are closing the gap in physics, with a 6.5% increase in entries, compared with a slight drop for boys.

Girls have extended their lead over boys in A* to C grades, but there have been predictions that this will be reversed due to the move away from coursework in favour of end-of-year exams.

However, we should remember that we have been here before. Back in 1994, Conservative education secretary John Patten imposed a 20% coursework limit in most subjects, in the expectation that this would close the gender gap, but there was no such effect – girls do not just beat the boys in coursework, but in examinations too.

Some of the new changes to assessment practices may actually favour girls – for example, marks awarded for good spelling will tend to work against boys, as boys are significantly worse at spelling than girls on average.

The gender gap in GCSE attainment continues to attract far more attention than the much larger attainment gap between rich and poor. Whether a return to examinations will help students from less advantaged backgrounds because it will remove the advantage that middle-class kids get from their parents helping them with their coursework remains to be seen.

Overall, the results do not testify to any dramatic change in standards, but they show the same old story of league tables setting up incentives for schools to behave in ways which were never intended, but are nevertheless predictable. There is no point in chastising schools for "gaming the system" when they did not design the game.

Dr Alice Sullivan is reader in sociology at the Institute of Education, University of London

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