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Primary Education News
News GCSE results: the learning curve | Editorial
Exams are essential to understanding what's happening in a school, but they are not enough on their own
GCSE mathematics, summer 2013. Answer both parts of the questions. Question 1a: if the number of 15-year-olds taking this exam rises by 49% and the proportion of them getting A*-C falls, what impact will this have on overall results? Question 1b: why are so many more 15-year-olds taking this exam a year early, when results suggest only a small number of them are particularly gifted in the subject?
The Department for Education was once a political cul de sac. Schools were run by local education authorities and Whitehall could only watch from afar. Now the department is the control module of planet Gove, the apotheosis of a long tendency to centralise power in Whitehall, and exam results have become the instrument by which the education secretary enforces his writ on the secondary education system. This is not necessarily a bad thing: you only get one chance at school, after all. But getting agreement on what a good school is doesn't make delivering it on the ground any less contentious. One result of the latest attempts at influence is the apparent battiness that sees students repeatedly taking, for example, maths (see above), partly because students themselves know that GCSEs are the gateway to higher education and vocational training, and partly because of schools' anxiety about their overall performance in the league tables. For the education secretary, exams are the way to higher standards and a more rigorous curriculum. They can be manipulated, for example, to encourage students to take the hard subjects – maths, languages and sciences – that schools with an eye to their results might otherwise shy away from. But pulling a lever in the cockpit doesn't guarantee quite the desired outcomes on the ground.
This year, 85,000 more students sat maths GCSE than in 2012, but overall there was a drop of 0.8 of a percentage point in the all-important A*-C grade range. Analyse the results by year group, though, and it emerges that the results for 16-year-olds were stable despite reports of tougher standards. The change was the big rise in 15-year-olds taking the exam, and a widening gap between their performance and that of the year above, which brought down the average result. And it is not just in maths that students are entering a year early. It is part of a pattern that, despite a flight to what is considered to be the more challenging IGCSE, has seen a 4% rise in exam entrants across the core subjects.
Exams are essential to understanding what's happening in a school, but they are not enough on their own. Too much emphasis on a particular result can mean that both the least and the most able students are ignored in favour of driving the maximum number across the dividing line between a D and a C grade. Neither do exams give a qualitative indication of a school's overall performance.
The interesting discussion now is about how to make the system work better. Michael Gove wants to introduce a points-based "attainment" measure that would rate performance across eight rather than five subjects. So that progress is measured too, the performance of individual schools would be rated against a national average of schools with a similar intake. But his proposals would keep maths and English as "threshold measures".
In a report published to coincide with the GCSE results, the thinktank CentreForum says the Gove proposals could be transformative – as long as the threshold measures aren't allowed to dominate. If they are, the perverse incentives of the existing system would be replicated. CentreForum recommends that instead of treating maths and English separately, they should be double-weighted within the eight-subject attainment measure. As long as schools are judged by attainment, rather than the threshold achievements, then the system should be fairer, incentivise taking core subjects, and may even be beyond gaming. For the one lesson every education secretary has surely now learned is that if schools are told to jump through a hoop, they will. But don't blame them if they bring a ladder.