“By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.”
So said Michael Gove, the then-Education Secretary in June 2013, and over five years on we are starting to see the fruition of the plans he spearheaded to overhaul the system of (England only) GCSE examination and grading entirely. His decision to implement a new number based grading system of 1-9, replacing the old A*-G grades, came alongside a new timetable for examination and the split of A* into grades 8 and 9, making it harder to achieve the highest possible grade.
The changes to the GCSE grading system were envisioned as part of a wider revamp to secondary education; with more focus placed on the core subjects of English, Maths and the sciences at the expense of creative subjects, with entries for creative GCSEs dropping notably in the past five years. Put this beside the marketisation of secondary education via the promotion of the academisation of schools and the introduction of a more rigorous system of examination, where pupils undertake exams on more challenging content at the end of two years, and it is indisputable that Gove is one of the most divisive Education Secretaries of all time.
It is the latter of these changes – those to the GCSE system, scrapping a modular approach and the inclusion of coursework in favour of final exams – that has proved immutably controversial. Pitched by supporters as a welcome toughening up of an increasingly ‘soft’ curriculum and by detractors as an unnecessary measure to exclude swathes of pupils, including those with additional needs and mental health concerns, it is now for the first time possible to see whether there have been major changes to results.
To the surprise of many, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) announced today that GCSE pass rates in fact rose this year, with one in five entries achieving a grade 7 or higher, up 0.5% on last year. The Guardian has reported that 732 students attained seven or more grade 9s, a new grade worth more than the previous highest grade A*, whilst 4.3% of overall results were comprised of grade 9s.
Interestingly, although girls continued to outperform boys at the highest level of attainment – with 5% girls’ entries receiving grade 9s compared to 3.6% of boys’ – the new system appeared to work in boys’ favour, with them closing the gender attainment gap by almost 1%, bringing the overall gender gap to 6.3% in girls’ favour.
Whilst it must be taken into account that comparative analysis between the results of 2017 and 2018 will account for several variables, according to the JCQ, standards continue to be maintained at the key grade points where accurate comparisons between reformed and non-reformed qualifications can be made.
Media and industry speculation has erred towards the idea that a drastic drop in grade attainment would result from the changes to GCSE examination and grading; and though wider trends cannot be forecast from a year’s worth of results, it appears on first look that the impact has not been as dramatic on grade attainment as first thought.
However, a word of caution – though grade attainment has not varied massively, it is vital to not exclude the impact on young people’s mental health caused by the changes. With a plethora of exams being undertaken in a short timespan, a decreasing pool of teachers unable to provide concrete reassurances to stressed pupils and lack of time to relax and recharge, it is more crucial than ever that pastoral care is operationalised and young people are able to switch off from the pressure of exams. Though today, with good reason, young people up and down the country will be thrilled with their results, we have to ask – are the reforms really worth it?