GCSE – sorting spin from reality

GCSE results day has long since stopped being just an opportunity to celebrate achievement and to commiserate with those who have fallen short of their ambitions. It’s become a key date in the spin doctors’ calendar. It’s also become a statistician’s nightmare as the published data only tells part of the story.

The government’s story is however clear. EBacc is a triumph because more young people are doing those subjects rather than the much maligned “soft” subjects. The fall in pass rates reflects greater rigour – improvements in results in past years have not been deserved.

The reality however is a good deal more complicated. The results are massively skewed by a huge increase in early entry, mainly in English and maths and by a shift away from GCSE to iGCSE. So comparing like with like is a challenge. But here are a few observations that may put these results into some kind of context.

For year 11 pupils there has actually been an improvement in the A* to C pass rate in English (+0.6%) and maths (0.1%) according to NAHT research not the decline that has hit the headlines. The decline in the headline numbers is entirely due to early entries. Those entered early did worse than year 11 students. It’s very hard indeed to see what they’ve gained from this. There has been a huge increase in the number of GCSE entries overall – some 220,000 in all or about 4.2%. Of these 61,000 were in English and 84,000 in maths – the early and multiple entry effect. But that still leaves 74,000 extra entries overall which suggests that young people are taking even more GCSEs.

That goes some way to explain why numbers have actually fallen in very few subjects despite the attempts of Liz Truss to spin a decline in “soft” subjects. So for example she claims a fall in business and communication systems down 1121 entries but ignores an increase of 7668 in other business studies GCSE’s. Similarly, she trumpets a fall of 1763 entries in home economics but forgets increases of 2839 in health and social care and 1141 in hospitality. The big fall has been in design technology – down by a rather more significant 20,000. Whether this represents progress in rebalancing the economy remains to be seen. It goes unmentioned by the DfE. They are however pleased by a big increase in ICT entries despite having denounced current ICT courses as unfit for purpose.

The big story of these results though is the now extraordinary level of gaming of the process we are seeing by schools often at the expense of their pupils. The pressure is understandable – ever rising floor targets, forced academisation, the clear risk to the jobs of heads and senior staff. None of these are entirely new but it is clear from this data that the panic is of a different scale to anything we have seen before and is a reflection of the extraordinary pressure that is now being placed on schools. It is now surely clear that the accountability system is doing massive damage. There must be a need now to revisit this issue in a very fundamental way, not just by tinkering with the league table measures.

One head gave an interesting take on the process though. He argued that it was unfair to expect a student to gamble everything on their performance on one afternoon in June. So to give them more than one chance is only fair, he argued. This is of course the case against the Gove approach to assessment – staking everything on one performance will indeed lead to unfairness and inaccuracy. But there are better ways of addressing this than forcing students to jump through this number of hoops.

Finally some thoughts on the great modern languages panic. We are told that the ability to do business in another language is crucial to our economic future. I have to say that I find it difficult to believe that a C in GCSE French is going to get a future international business man very far. A level languages have become a purely linguistic exercise with little opportunity to study the literature, history or culture associated with the language in any depth. It doesn’t seem to provide opportunities for much more than fairly mechanistic translation and comprehension – hardly surprising I think that its appeal to A level candidates is pretty limited given that if it was in English some of it would hardly stretch Year 7.

If there is a need to develop language skills for business or any other area of working life, is the answer not either to include relevant language study alongside the particular discipline or for people to go to dedicated language schools for in depth study when they need it? And of course it’s entirely possible to start a university course from scratch. That is how people gain other areas of specialist knowledge needed in the workplace – why not languages?