Early GCSE entry, simultaneous use of multiple exam boards in the same subject and growth in the alternative IGCSE have all shot up this summer as schools try everything to maximise students’ chances of crucial C grades.
Ofqual, the exams watchdog, has revealed that early GCSE entry has now reached the point where only two-thirds of the GCSE maths results published later this month will be for 16-year-olds.
Maths is also the biggest example of schools entering their pupils simultaneously for GCSEs from several exam boards. Ofqual said that 15 per cent of students entered for a maths GCSE last summer had also sat one or more units from another GCSE in the subject, and the regulator believes the trend is continuing this year.
Meanwhile, in what is believed to be a reaction to the 2012 GCSE English grading controversy, the number of candidates for IGCSEs in English language has exploded from last year’s 18,000 to 78,000, or one in 10 of the cohort.
The changes come as schools need ever better results to fulfil tougher Ofsted inspections and meet government floor targets, at a time when Ofqual is clamping down on grade inflation. Last year, the watchdog’s “comparable outcomes” approach ended GCSE grade inflation for the first time in the qualification’s history.
Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said multiple entry was a school “tactic” more common for students judged to be on the C-D grade borderline.
“In some cases we’re seeing, in maths, that students are riding two horses and then moving to a third horse, a completely different one, halfway through,” she said.
But Ms Stacey said there were “questions to be asked” about the educational value of the practice. “There’s a fine balance between doing the best for a student by perhaps putting them in for more than one assessment and demotivating a student by putting them through a good number of assessments when actually, perhaps, the time might be better spent teaching,” she said.
“If these trends continue, people are going to be suspicious about what a C grade represents.”
Department for Education research published last month revealed that among last year’s cohort were 400 students who had been entered for GCSE maths seven or more times, including resits.
The study also found that students entered for multiple GCSEs achieved lower grades than single entrants with the same prior attainment. “The Government does not believe that continually sitting examinations is beneficial or motivating for pupils,” the report read.
Ms Stacey said the 333 per cent rise in IGCSE English language entries suggested that schools were reacting to last year’s English grading controversy.
IGCSE maths entries were also significantly up but with a much lower increase, from 34,000 to 45,000.
Michael Gove has encouraged the switch to the international version of the GCSE, traditionally favoured among independent schools. Last September, the education secretary told Parliament: “I would encourage all schools to consider how the IGCSE might be an appropriate preparation for the changes [to GCSE] that we hope to introduce.”
Early entries from students in Year 10 or below will account for 23 per cent of GCSE maths entries this summer, up from 18 per cent last year. In English language, early entries are up from 7 to 10 per cent. Ofqual believes this might be because this summer is the last time that GCSEs will be modular, with assessments throughout the course.
The watchdog bases its system for countering grade inflation only on the prior attainment of 16-year-olds taking the GCSE. So a big increase in younger, less educated candidates could lead to the proportion of good grades falling.
Macolm Trobe, deputy general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “A lot of this [changes in entry tactics] comes down to the accountability system, which is putting an inordinate strain on schools.”
In November, TES revealed that simultaneous entry to GCSE and IGCSE English exams was being promoted to around 400 secondaries, which were each paying £3,500 a year to receive advice from a group called the PiXL (Performance in Excellence) Club. The DfE condemned the practice as cynical.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said: “When accusations fly that schools are somehow gaming the system, it is often the case that a blind eye is turned to the malign influence of Ofsted benchmarks and ever changing floor targets from government.”