The new GCSE exams were launched last year in English and maths. What can teachers in other subjects expect this year, judging by the experience of colleagues who have already been through the process?
Jane Campion, an English teacher who edits the English Association’s journal, says that grappling with the reforms has been difficult. Volatility in results was definitely noticed last year, she says, and the results “showed substantial variations between centres where marks didn’t necessarily follow patterns from previous years”. “Where historically you might have been able to match levels of attainment to a particular set in a school, that was not consistently the case with last year’s results.”
In a recent editorial in the EA’s journal, Campion notes: “At no point in my career have I felt less confident about helping pupils to get the grades they deserve.”
She is also concerned about the ambiguity that the government has created in the grading system, whereby grade 4 is viewed as a pass for pupils but schools are held to account on grade 5. “Students with a 4 are finding that now that they are doing university applications in Year 12, a lot of universities say they need a 5 where historically they might have said they need a C,” Campion says.
She does worry about “the long-term health of the subject” – there was a drop in English A-level uptake last year, which Campion attributes to expanded, tougher content at GCSE putting young people off the subject.
Asked what advice she would give to teachers in other subjects, Campion strikes a stoical note. “We do the best we can do, don’t we? And at some point it’s out of your hands.”
Corinne Angier, honorary secretary of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, has more words of wisdom. The first thing she notes is that there are positives in the new maths GCSE. “There is no doubt, I would say, that the quality of the questions is better. They are not exams that you can be trained like a robot to do very well in. You have really got to think.”
There are issues with the grading system, however – last year the boundaries were “crazily low” in maths, Angier says, which casts doubt on whether the new GCSEs are “gold-standard” qualifications. “That some of the kids were getting three-quarters of the paper wrong or not even attempting three-quarters and still getting a GCSE – nobody in the world would consider that a good assessment,” she argues.
Angier advises teachers in other subjects to “keep very much in touch with your exam board” and to work together across their profession. One positive from last year was that maths teachers “started to do a lot of collaboration online – people were sharing mock results, sharing what they reckoned were going to be the grade boundaries, so there was a lot of collaboration at ground level”, she says.
Angier adds that the difficulty predicting grades in the new GCSEs should make schools reconsider their obsession with data. “Why are we so exercised by this? Why are school managers so desperate to be able to predict down to 17 decimal places what they think their Progress 8 score is going to be?” she says. She urges teachers to “ignore your senior managers and just teach as well as you can”.
The good news is that things do get better. “The maths teachers are finding it slightly easier this year, they’ll find it slightly easier next year,” Angier says.