Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes:
Recent years have seen an ever increasing amount of speculation ahead of the publication of GCSE results. This year more than ever before, there were grounds for this. This is the year in which all GCSE examinations have become linear. We have also had the removal of speaking and listening assessments from the GCSE English and English language grades, and the geography GCSE has been ‘strengthened’ by Ofqual. There has been a substantial increase in the number of entries for iGCSE in English and maths, and fewer students were entered early for exams, meaning that the student cohort will look different from previous years. The outcome of all of these changes is the kind of ‘volatility’ that Ofqual forecast in the unprecedented but informative letter it sent to schools in June.
What does all of this mean in practice? It means that it has been very difficult for professionals to forecast what the results would be like and that the job for teachers of preparing young people for examinations becomes more and more difficult each year. Once upon a time a teacher knew that a piece of work would indicate within a reasonable margin a particular grade. That is much more difficult to assess now; a deeply unsettling state of affairs for teachers who want to do the best for their students. Together with a fierce accountability associated with examination results their impending arrival in schools has become an equally nail-biting experience for teachers, school leaders and students.
So now to today’s results. The first thing to say is that there is good news. There is absolutely no doubt that teachers and students have done their very best to cope in an incredibly challenging context and many schools have seen extremely good outcomes. But others have had some nasty and demoralising surprises that are difficult to explain. Schools with strong track records and strong Ofsted judgements have seen a drop in their pass rates in core subjects. Ofqual insists that standards have been maintained. At a global, statistical level, that is undoubtedly correct. There are technical explanations that justify that claim. But that is not the point.
The fact of the matter is that young people are not statistics. They are individuals whose life chances depend on these results. Many of the schools calling ASCL’s hotline are telling us that they had a good cohort, the same teachers, that they prepared them meticulously, and yet are reporting results bearing no resemblance to the standard of achievement their pupils demonstrated throughout Year 11.
ASCL recognises the need to ensure that our qualifications remain ambitious, but warned the government and Ofqual to implement planned coherent reform rather than tinker with qualifications year on year. They have consistently ignored this advice, making piecemeal changes to GCSE every year, often changing things in the middle of students’ courses, rather than implementing planned coherent reforms according to a manageable timescale. This has undermined the confidence of the profession and the credibility of what used to be a respected GCSE brand. For employers, FE colleges and universities it places a big health warning on these results. For those students who have been the victims of this ‘volatility’ there is a real risk of that experience being a cap on their aspirations, casting into jeopardy the vitally important efforts to improve social mobility which our profession has worked so hard to support.
There has never been a more pressing need for policymakers to listen to the profession, who are as ambitious as anyone else in their commitment to the highest standards of achievement. The arrogant refusal to listen to the justified warnings from school leaders about rushed reforms has once again affected the life chances of some young people. That is a disgrace.