GCSE maths: How does 15 per cent equal a pass?

When looking at the grade boundaries for GCSE maths yesterday, Mark Dawe found himself annoyed. Here, he explains why

Mark Dawe

GCSE maths: How does 15 per cent equal a pass?

I won’t apologise for being a bit obsessed with maths.

I’ve got a further maths A level, in a previous life was an accountant, I worked on the Skills for Life strategy for adult numeracy and literacy, and as a college principal, I insisted all my staff had at least a level 2 in maths.

When I led OCR, we battled for two maths GCSEs to be introduced and helped to set up the Cambridge maths project. At AELP, I fought for functional skills, and one of the first jobs in my new role at the Skills Network was to ensure we had an amazing suite of resources and assessment for all levels of functional skills.

So what, I hear you ask.


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Last night, I sat reading about the maths GCSE retakes and found myself getting very annoyed. I wasn’t annoyed at the amazing effort these students are putting in or annoyed that the pass rate was around 35 per cent, but annoyed because the pass mark was between 15 and 17 per cent for the higher maths paper. 

This is not a new phenomenon. Whether it’s the November retakes or the main summer exam, the pass mark has stayed stubbornly at this level.

The government has spent millions on recruiting and up-skilling teachers. There is absolutely no doubt that the quality of maths delivery and understanding has improved across the school, college and provider population. Students are doing incredibly well and this is certainly not aimed at taking anything away from their achievement. 

But, the pass mark is 15 per cent. Show me any other assessment in the world where the ability to demonstrate effectively 15 per cent of the knowledge and skills is acceptable for a pass. 

Or put another way, how is someone who is unable to get 85 per cent of the exam correct deemed at a level where they should pass the assessment? How can the regulator, Ofqual, deem this acceptable?

Forgotten functional skills

I then started to reflect on functional skills. It’s without the reputation of the “gold standard” GCSE, and teaches functional maths designed to support an individual in work and life. It’s a qualification you either pass or fail. 

To pass you have to achieve (roughly) 50 per cent in your various exams and assessments – and that’s reasonable enough I think. And yet, we still have employers – not all, I admit – that filter using GCSEs and ignore other qualifications.

This situation angers and frustrates me every six months when the GCSE results come out. To be honest, I am stunned it isn’t front-page news in the national press.

But what has tipped me over the edge this year is the government’s current position on functional skills, which appears to be supported by Ofqual, headed by Simon Lebus. 

The government has finally agreed that this year’s GCSEs should be teacher assessed, with some form of human moderation. Well, Nick Gibb must be eaten up inside. For the past 10 years, he has been hellbent on removing any form of teacher assessment in any qualification he can get his hands on –  look at the new A levels and GCSEs, and the gradual shift to external assessment in BTECs, Cambridge TECs and the like. Even with this obsession, the schools minister has clearly conceded that the only safe and fair approach is to use teacher assessment this summer.

Under normal conditions, functional skills combines teacher assessment and external assessment. Indeed, it is based on gathering evidence throughout the programme demonstrating competency, knowledge and skills in maths.

During the pandemic, it seems that the government is determined to make the lives of those doing functional skills impossible. Suggestions of invigilators going to their houses or apprentices having to go into testing centres during a period where we are all being told we can’t even buy a coffee and go for a socially distanced walk.

At some point, technology (remote proctoring is the technical term) will allow secure online exams, but it isn’t ready and certainly not at volume. Those doing functional skills are generally the ones who had a miserable time at school studying maths, not even achieving the 15 per cent pass mark. They are the forgotten 50 per cent, the ones the government says it plans to “level up”. And yet, the actions of Ofqual and the Department for Education suggest they are still well and truly forgotten.

Some might ask if it really matters or not if there are delays in this assessment. They say, let’s wait until the summer when we have all been injected – then learners can do the assessment.

The problem is, we aren’t simply talking about progressing young people in their academic qualifications. These are young people and adults who need to demonstrate their competency to further their career or make a first step into a job. These are the real disadvantaged who want to be able to sustain themselves and their family rather than rely on an apple, potato and can of baked beans from the government to feed their children.

According to government figures, there are at least 40,000 apprentices stuck without an ability to complete their apprenticeship because they can’t take their functional skills exam. This estimate is prudent – I’d guess it is double that figure and that thousands more are hitting the DfE brick wall every week while our GCSE students are being taken by the hand and guided to the land of opportunity.

Rhetoric over action and evidence

This week, Gavin Williamson talked about the importance of parity between academic students and vocational students. If you watched the two-hour select committee, you’ll have seen those very words come out of his mouth. He needs to confirm now that functional skills will be teacher assessed until the summer, or once again it is another example of rhetoric over action and evidence, which leaves a really bad taste. 

More widely, something must be done about the maths GCSE: the curriculum and the expectation is too great for one GCSE. It’s important to teach it all and I believe everyone should do maths to the age of 18, whatever they are studying, but it should always have been two GCSEs, a bit like English. 

In the meantime, someone needs to justify how 15 per cent is a pass.

Mark Dawe is the chief executive of The Skills Network

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