By Ian Toone

The outcry from many quarters over this summer's GCSE results has inevitably fuelled debates that the qualification has passed its 'sell by' date and should be replaced by something better suited to the purpose of measuring students' achievements. This was certainly the tenor of Michael Gove's response to parliament yesterday, and his view appears to be shared by a number of other influential individuals and organisations.

Only two months ago, parliament's education select committee called for a 'fundamental reform' of GCSEs, claiming that standards are spiralling down in such a way that the general public have lost confidence in the qualification. Although GCSE qualifications are regulated by Ofqual, the committee expressed concern that Ofqual may be too weak and ineffective to repair the damage to the system.

Ofqual have been in the spotlight over the past week or so, as it has presided over an investigation into this year's GCSE English results. The initial report, hurriedly published last Friday, assures us all that 'each exam board set standards for the qualifications in the manner expected and at "the appropriate standard" and that "a candidate awarded a C grade this year achieved the same standard as a candidate awarded a C grade last year in the same subject".

The report goes on to explain that the failure of people working in schools and colleges to make sense of what has happened is unsurprising as the "GCSE system is complex", such that it "is difficult for schools and colleges to understand".

It is also difficult to see how such patronising comments are meant to assuage the torrent of very strong emotions which continue to be felt by all those teachers and students whose strenuous efforts to achieve all that has been asked of them have been thwarted by a sudden and unexpected change which has occurred in a system which was hitherto thought to be solid and reliable.

GCSE results are of central importance, not only to students, whose future study, employment and general life chances may depend on them, but also to schools, which may find themselves closed down, put into special measures or otherwise penalised if they fall too low in performance league tables.

This year has seen an overall decline in the A*-C pass rate (69.4% this year, compared with 69.8% last year) and a fall of 0.8% in the number of A/A* grades (22.4% this year, compared with 23.2% last year). Although the fall in the pass rate is a mere fraction of a percentage point, with well over half a million students sitting these exams, thousands of students have been affected. The change is certainly significant both statistically and in terms of the impact on real people, and this is the first time that a decline in the A*-C pass rate has occurred since the GCSE qualification was introduced in 1988. The 1.5% fall in A*-C grades for English GCSE is even more unprecedented.

So what has happened this year and, perhaps more importantly, what should be done about it? Ofqual, together with the awarding bodies, would have us believe that this year's cohort was simply weaker than those of previous years, but delving into the detail of the results, and the machinations by which those results were produced, reveals a more sinister picture.

Threats by the government to 'contain' the rising tide of so-called 'grade inflation', whereby pass rates increase year on year, have resulted in the introduction of more stringent syllabuses, tougher rules on the setting of grade boundaries, as well as a heavier emphasis on terminal assessment. Forty per cent of assessments must now be taken at the end of the course, thus restricting the extent to which candidates can accumulate marks by sitting and re-sitting modules throughout the course.

Ofqual has also imposed a 'comparable outcomes' approach on awarding bodies, whereby the achievements of any current cohort have been artificially capped by imposing limits based on that same cohort's performance at some point in the past. Thus, the achievements of this year's A-level students has been capped by imposing limits based on GCSE results in 2010, whilst this year's GCSE results have been capped by taking account of the cohort's Key Stage 2 results in 2007. As grade boundaries at Key Stage 2 are determined by reference to achievement by the same cohort in Key Stage 1 tests four years earlier, it can be seen that inertia has been built into the system so that any increase in attainment has become virtually impossible.

Ofqual confirmed in July that the GCSE qualification was being 'recalibrated' and that the above measures would conspire to at least flatten, if not lower, results in many schools. Schools were advised not to worry, though, as Ofsted had been informed of these changes so that account could be taken of them during inspections. Unfortunately, this has not been evident in recent pronouncements made by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector.

Ofsted has launched a more demanding inspection framework and education secretary Michael Gove has raised the bar on what is expected of schools by setting a new target where schools have to ensure that at least 40% of pupils achieve five A*-C grades in their GCSEs.

Moreover, these five GCSEs must include English and maths, and the target is set to rise to 50% by 2015 and, eventually, to 80%. Furthermore, as the age of participation in education increases to 17 years old in 2013, and to 18 in 2015, most students who have not secured a C grade or above pass in English and maths will be compelled to repeat them again and again until they meet the required standard.

Such political interference has little to do with education and belittles the enormous efforts being made by students and their teachers to achieve ever more stringent standards. As targets become more and more challenging and Ofqual attempts to quell an increase in pass rates, it seems obvious that the system will disintegrate under the strain of competing tensions.

However, the problem is more a result of government meddling and regulatory restrictions rather than factors pertaining to the qualification itself. The GCSE has been enormously successful in enabling the vast majority of students to register achievements within the range of their capabilities. In this regard, it must not be forgotten that grades G-D represent creditable awards for the large numbers of students who are of below average ability in terms of their academic skills.

This is not about 'all must have prizes'; it is about recognising that the multifarious skills of differently abled students can celebrated at various points along a continuum. It is senseless to think that everyone can be above average, so attainment needs to be appropriately differentiated so that students' efforts can be credited accordingly.

The problem of grade inflation is not new. It affects all criterion referenced systems in most modern economies. All that is needed is a more effective way of differentiating achievement. It may be that four grades (A*-C) or eight grades (A*-G) are insufficient, but this can be easily remedied by publishing percentile scores alongside or instead of grades.

Percentiles are more useful than raw scores, or even percentages, because they indicate how well a student has performed in relation to all other students taking the qualification, e.g. a student scoring at the 90th percentile will have performed better than 90% of the cohort (which is not the same as scoring 90% of the available marks).

Whatever examination eventually emerges from the current debates, it is important that it meets the needs of all learners so that all students are able to leave school or college having received a well-rounded education, effective recognition of their abilities and the opportunity to enjoy a fulfilling life. This will enable them to make a valuable and productive contribution as citizens of a society which values education as a preparation for life rather than as an examination factory. 

Ian Toone  is the senior professional officer at Voice: the union for education professionals.

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