Analysis: Do new GCSEs give all pupils a ‘fair deal’?

‘Something has gone wrong with the content of the GCSE,’ say school leaders concerned about the fate of the so-called ‘forgotten third’ of pupils

Teachers feel that the new GCSEs are worsening pupils' mental health and engagement, according to a NEU survey

"The programme is very focused on developing character and self-esteem," says Rachel Johnson. "We wanted to ask, what kind of deal are these young people getting in school? Are these the best days of their lives?"

Ms Johnson, head of strategy at PiXL a self-help club of nearly 3,000 schools, is talking about its “Build Up” programme that more than 500 secondaries have signed up to since May.

They are hoping it will help boost attainment among pupils at risk of failing to pass English and maths GCSE at grade 4, often described as the “forgotten third.”


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Schools view the problem as being exacerbated by the introduction of new GCSEs from 2017, explicitly designed to be harder.

Julie McCulloch, policy director of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Something has gone wrong with the content of the GCSE.

“It probably is better preparation for A Level, but as a society we focus too much on the higher-attaining cohorts. For pupils who won’t do A Levels, it won’t help them.”

She cited the new English language GCSE which she said did not assess “the pragmatic day-to-day abilities in the language young people have”.

Crime and Punishment

Ms McCulloch said an Edexcel English language paper last year featured an extract from Crime and Punishment.

 "There are serious concerns about the increased difficulty and how accessible the GCSEs are for lower-ability pupils,” she said.

“The linear approach, with the sheer number of end-of-course exams, are particularly challenging for less academically able pupils.

“As the new qualifications bed down, we might see improvements, but there are concerns that this doesn’t work for some young people.”

Build Up aims to raise the attainment of 20 of the lowest-attaining pupils in every school. Some schools have altered their timetables to ensure low-ability cohorts have more access to the scheme to try and boost their attainment as much as possible.

'Sticking plaster job'

Sir John Rowling, chief executive of Pixl, said a third of pupils sitting their GCSE exams were likely to leave school with “low to no” qualifications. “Schools are very concerned about this,” he said.

Previous attempts to combat the issue had been a “sticking plaster job rather than a treatment job”.

Some of the lessons designed for the Pixl programme focus on how literacy, maths and science might be applied to employment when pupils leave school, such as helping pupils develop their knowledge of hygiene when preparing food, or the numeracy they might need if they worked in retail.

And there is a focus on character development, with lessons on tone of voice, body language, and how pupils express themselves on social media.

Mike Lloyd, a celebrity chef who grew up in care, is also helping pupils set up pop-up restaurants as part of the programme.

Ms Johnson said the programme aims to boost pupils' confidence and motivation, as well as giving them practical skills to help them find employment.

"Young people need to be able to read competently, regardless of the grade they get," she said. "We want to reward things that may not be counted or assessed under the current exams system."

"The programme is academically rigorous, but we won't measure its success in terms of GCSE grades. You can't always measure transformation in a league table," she said.

She said supporting the weakest pupils in the cohort was increasingly necessary given the challenging nature of the reformed GCSEs.

"Rigour is good, but in any system young people may fail. We need to make school valuable and meaningful for them.”

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