Last Thursday morning, alongside the 16-year-olds picking up their GCSE results, thousands of college students received their English and maths GCSE grades.
For some, there would have been well-deserved jubilation. Finally, they have that magic grade 4 – or, in a few cases, 5 – in English and/or maths. Sadly, for so many more, they won’t have reached the grade and will be signed up for English and maths classes, yet again.
What does a more in-depth look at the 16 to 18 results tell us? What is the story behind the figures?
Most took 9-1 papers
The first thing to remember is that this summer, all students doing resits took the reformed 9-1 GCSEs.
Last year there was a mix of A* to G legacy papers, IGCSE and 9-1 papers, so it was more challenging to get a true picture of the resit landscape.
It is also worth bearing in mind that in some colleges all 16- to 18-year-old resit students took GCSE, including those with grades lower than a 3/D.
This is mainly due to the progress measures which mean that grade 2 (old E/F) students need to achieve a level 2 in functional skills to make positive progress. This, combined with the fact that even when a student achieves a level 2, he/she still must take GCSEs, meaning that GCSE can seem the better option.
'Demoralising for students and staff'
Of course, all data at this time of year is provisional. There may be changes after reviews of marking, but the numbers won’t change that much over such a large cohort.
Ofqual figures for all post-16 providers indicate that 29.7 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds gained a high grade (or 9 to 4) in GCSE English language and 18.2 per cent did so in maths.
The good news is that this means that more 16- to 18-year-old students now have a GCSE in English and/or maths. But, of course, so many more face another resit.
This is demoralising for students and staff.
Improvement in English
It is difficult to make year-on-year comparisons for this data set. In previous years, the 16 to 18 figures have not been available on results day, but if we drill down a bit further into Year 12 and 13 data what we can see is that GCSE English grades for both 17- and 18-year-olds have improved by 3 per cent on last year.
Speaking to college teachers and managers over the past year, this may be because there is no longer a controlled assessment requirement – four pieces of written work, two of which were based on texts.
As students joined colleges from many feeder schools, which had all studied different texts, colleges had to start from scratch. It often took well over half the academic year to complete the controlled assessments and all that work was only worth 20 per cent of the overall grade. In the past year, colleges have been able to support students to build their confidence and improve their skills from day one.
Collapse in maths
While achievement for both 17- and 18-year-olds has improved slightly, the difference in achievement for the two different year groups indicates that, as the Association of Colleges (AoC) has been saying for the past three years, students at 17 or in Year 12 have a better chance of achieving a pass grade than those retaking at 18 or in Year 13 (there is no data breakdown for third-year students).
This year, as with last year, more 17-year-olds achieved a pass than 18-year-olds, by a margin of 4 percentage points.
The same is true, but starker, when looking at maths alone. Proportionally, more 17-year-olds passed than 18-year-olds – by a gap of 8 percentage points. Just over 14 per cent of 18-year-olds passed. The grades for both 17- and 18-year-olds fell by 2 per cent.
Last year, approximately 18 per cent of post-16 students (including adults) took the 9-1 exam in maths and those that did had a 14 per cent greater chance of getting a pass grade than those who took the legacy exam.
This year is very different. The percentage of post-16 grade 4s fell by 14 per cent in 9-1 – but, of course, post-16 entries increased by over 400 per cent. Was it just the move for all students to the more rigorous 9-1 or is there something in the grade boundaries, too?
Grade boundary changes
The grade boundary for at least one of the awarding bodies went up by 14 marks. Grade boundaries are set based on the prior attainment of the 16-year-old cohort and the accessibility of the paper – potentially this year’s paper was more accessible and the 16-year-old cohort slightly stronger.
All borderline students taking the paper would have been impacted by a boundary change, but whereas in school students perform across the 9-1 grades, in colleges all the students are bunched around the pass mark. At one college, 100 students who got a 4 on the summer 2017 paper when used as a mock, didn’t get a 4 in this summer’s paper.
So, what conclusions can we draw? You are more likely to pass when you retake for the first time (at 17) than for the second time at 18.
English language pass marks have increased slightly, possibly because teaching can focus on skills rather than controlled assessments, and changing grade boundaries appear to have a disproportionate impact on outcomes for colleges.
'Time for a serious rethink of the current strategy'
However, what the data really tells us is that the resit policy is still failing 70 per cent of those students taking English language resists and over 80 per cent of those resitting maths. And this has been a regular pattern over the past four years.
We all agree that English and maths are core skills for life and employment, but there must be a better, more positive way to develop these skills. This data tells us that now is the time for a serious rethink of the current strategy, an open discussion on how we can all work together to achieve success rather than failure.
How can we make this happen? At AoC, we are pleased that the government is investing in centres for excellence in maths and the maths premium pilots.
But at the same time, we would like to see an alternative option for English and maths, and a strategy that supports achievement starting in key stage 4. This needs to be underpinned by appropriate funding and the removal of the progress measures linked to the condition of funding to allow a flexibility between GCSE or functional skills.
Catherine Sezen is senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges