GCSE English language 'should be replaced'

Commission into ‘forgotten third’ of pupils who do not pass English and maths says GCSE English Language is ‘not fit for purpose’

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GCSE English language is not "fit for purpose" and should be replaced with a new qualification that better assesses pupils’ language skills, according to a new report.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry, set up by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), says that GCSE English Language is too focused on literary analysis and sidelines pupils’ skills in spoken language.

And it wants to see GCSE English replaced by a "Passport in English" that assesses a range of skills. It adds that a companion "Passport in Maths" should also be considered.

The Commission's report, published today, follows an investigation into how to improve the prospects of the “forgotten third” of pupils who leave school without gaining a grade 4 – considered a standard pass – in GCSE maths and English each year.


Related: GCSE results: Schools battle to help 'forgotten third'

Background: 'Forgotten third' of GCSE pupils found in all school types

Quick-read: Heads launch ‘commission of inquiry’ over GCSE results


The final report, The Forgotten Third, suggests that GCSE English language is no longer suitable as a measure of students’ abilities to speak, read and write in English with proficiency.

“The current GCSE English Language qualification is not fit for purpose,” the report said.

In the legacy GCSE, pupils completed a portfolio of written controlled assessments, and were also awarded marks for their skills in speaking and listening, worth 20 per cent of the overall qualification.

Since the revised, tougher GCSEs were introduced from 2015 only linear, exam-based assessments count towards the English language qualification.

The report drew attention to how a recent Edexcel GCSE English language exam used a passage in translation from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as an extract.

In the tasks now set in language exams, “the papers attempt to test both the functional and the aesthetic” – reflecting a time when not all pupils sat GCSE English literature.

In 2018, over 187,000 pupils failed to achieve at least a grade 4 in English and maths GCSE, according to data from the Department of Education.

“This rate of attrition, this forgotten third, happens year in and year out because it is built into the way our exam system works,” the report said.

According to the report, the system of comparable outcomes means the proportion of students who pass or fail is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past. It thus remains broadly consistent over time, with one-third of students failing to pass key subjects each year.

The key recommendation of the report is that GCSE English language be replaced by a “Passport in English" assessing a range of skills.

It would be taken by all students at the point of readiness of the student and could be built on over time at different levels between the ages of 15 and 19, reducing the need for pupils who have failed to gain a grade 4 to continuously resit the GCSE until age 18.

The commission criticised the government’s description of grade 4 as a “standard" pass and grade 5 as a “strong” pass.

“The descriptor of a grade C as a good pass in the previous system at least held on to the notion that lower grades constituted a pass. If a grade 4 is now a standard pass and a grade 5 a strong pass, what does that mean for grades 1, 2, and 3?” the report said.

The report recommends that a new approach to primary assessment should be developed to replace key stage 2 Sats, so that maths and English teaching is not prioritised over the need for a broad curriculum.

Commission chair Roy Blatchford said: “It cannot be right or sensible that we continue to operate a system that is designed to ‘fail’ one-third of young people every year in order that two-thirds succeed. The third who we consign to this fate are left utterly dejected and with reduced chances for progression in education and careers.”

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: “The Commission’s recommendation for a Passport in English is a groundbreaking proposal to make our exam system a more humane and supportive experience which better reflects the optimistic, modern and forward-thinking nation we need to be. It would allow every young person the dignity of achieving a qualification of which they can be proud.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our education system is designed to maximise opportunity for all young people of all backgrounds, giving them the grounding they need to make the most of their lives. 

“We have dramatically reformed GCSEs over the past five years to ensure young people are leaving school ready for the world of work, while also adapting functional skills qualifications, including English, to better meet students’ needs post-16 and ensure they have a strong grasp of essential skills like reading, writing and maths. 

“The education secretary has made clear that he won’t be changing the national curriculum, allowing teachers the freedom to focus on their teaching.”

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