GCSE results 2017: Top grades and 'pass' rates drop as tougher exams make debut

But headteachers have warned against comparing this summer's results, which include new numerical grades, to previous years' results

Eleanor Busby

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The proportion of UK entries receiving top GCSE grades – A*/A or 9-7 in subjects with reformed qualifications – has fallen to a fifth: its lowest point in a decade.

Results released this morning by exam boards show that the proportion of UK entries getting A*-C or 9-4 has also fallen from 66.9 to 66.3 per cent.

They are the first to include new intentionally tougher, numerically graded GCSEs – introduced this year for maths, English language and English literature. 

Yesterday, heads said they feared losing their jobs because they are concerned that they will be judged against the new grade 5 – pitched higher than the old grade C – which the government has dubbed a "strong pass".

The benchmark was achieved by 50.1 per cent of entries in the three reformed subjects.

Teaching unions warned that this year’s results should not be compared to previous years in light of these new GCSEs – being phased in over four years.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of headteachers’ union NAHT, said: “In a year which marks the start of unprecedented changes to GCSEs, these kinds of comparisons are particularly unjust and unreliable.

“Until all of the reformed GCSEs are fully implemented and we’ve seen a few more years of the 9-1 system, those who seek to hold schools to account should refrain from comparing this year’s results to last.”

But this morning, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the exam boards, released the proportion of UK students that received a 7, or an A, and above – showing a fall of 0.5 percentage points from 20.5 per cent last year.

The same was done with what used to be known as the overall “good” pass rate – A*-C – which this year was combined with a 4 and above – to show the 0.6 percentage point fall.

It was a similar picture for all three of the subjects where many pupils took England’s reformed versions of the qualification. The proportion of all UK GCSE entries achieving an A or a 7 or better fell from 13.7 in 2016 to 13.6 per cent in English language; from 21.3 to 19.2 in English literature and from 15.9 to 15.5 per cent in maths.

But the exam boards have said that the drop in outcomes – including the reformed subjects – can be linked to a change in cohort this year, which has been driven by school accountability measures.

The number of GCSE English language entries jumped by 48.1 per cent, with the likely explanation that the equivalent IGCSE has been removed from the league tables this year.

Meanwhile, the number of GCSE English literature entries jumped by 38.6 per cent this year because of the way it counts towards the main school accountability measure Progress 8.

This means that more lower-ability pupils have been entered for these exams – especially English literature – which the exam boards say has led a fall in the proportion of top grades this summer.

In maths, the impact of large numbers of 17-year-olds resitting is likely to have contributed to the fall.

Michael Turner, director general of JCQ, said: “The substantial shifts in entry patterns, especially in the English subjects where there were a quarter of a million extra students, are mainly the result of those students who previously would have sat the IGCSE now taking the GCSE. And, as expected, these changes have had an effect on overall UK results.”

*Geoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: “Congratulations to the pupils and their teachers on this year’s GCSE results which have been achieved in very challenging circumstances. They have performed miracles amidst a sea of curriculum change which continues unabated next year. They deserve tremendous credit for their hard work.

“We have once again seen a decline in entries to subjects which are not included in the English Baccalaureate. These are very important subjects such as design and technology, drama and music. We agree that a rigorous academic curriculum is essential, but we also believe in curriculum breadth. The evidence is clear that the government’s reforms are narrowing the curriculum and we think this is to the detriment of our young people and to the country.

“We are concerned to see a slight decline in the overall rate for grades C/ 4, and above, and fear that this may be the result of driving children down this narrow academic route which does not necessarily suit every child. In addition, the new reformed GCSEs are more challenging and children sit more exams.

“These factors are putting young people under great pressure and creating increased stress and anxiety. We are increasingly concerned about their wellbeing and we will be raising this issue with the Department for Education as a matter of urgency."

GCSE results day 2017

*Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, predicted "confusion" because of the staged introduction of the new grading system.

“In England, but not Wales nor Northern Ireland, GCSEs are being made more demanding with exams at the end," he said.
“There is great potential for confusion.  In England for the next three years there will be a mixture of the new and the old grades.  The government has not been clear whether  grade 4 or a grade 5 will be counted as a pass..  Although bearing the same names, GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will differ in both content and grading."

*Teach First executive director, James Westhead, said: “Additional figures released today have revealed that of those who received their GCSE results last year, 26,000 are currently not in education, employment or training.

"We know these teenagers are more likely to be from poorer families, as they will have been constantly faced with hurdles to social mobility that simply don’t exist for those from more advantaged backgrounds. 

“We must do more to challenge this, as in a post-Brexit world we must ensure our country’s workforce is met by home-grown talent. Ensuring every child has access to a brilliant education, in order to reach their full potential, is not only essential to create a fairer society, it’s also an economic imperative”. 

*Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: "The fact that such relatively stable results have been achieved against a backdrop of uncertainty and anxiety caused by the rushed reforms to the grading system and the ongoing resource pressures within schools is a great tribute to the hard work and dedication of the young people and their teachers.

"Schools have been forced largely to navigate the way for themselves largely due to the rushed and poorly planned reform timescale imposed by the government... The expectation that schools will continually plug the gap for government failures simply cannot continue."

She added: “Once again the adverse impact of the EBacc is evident in the alarming drop in the number of students taking artistic, practical and creative subjects at GCSE. This clearly shows the government’s high-stakes accountability regime and its pointless EBacc measure is denying children the opportunity to access the broad and balanced curriculum to which they are entitled.” 

*Neil Carberry, CBI Managing Director of People and Skills, said: "While exams are important, they are only part of the picture of our education system. Differentiating top performers – as these reforms intend – is helpful but we must not lose sight of what is needed for all pupils and schools to succeed.

"Support for high-quality teaching and leadership, especially in core subjects, is vital to help raise achievement for all. With the arrival of new GCSE gradings in English and Maths, it’s important that businesses and schools are given the right support to adjust to the new system.

“Resources to demystify the gradings are helpful, particularly as employers begin to navigate these changes when recruiting."

* Policy Exchange’s head of education John Blake said: "We needed these reforms to increase the amount of content being studied and make the qualifications more demanding. The results show that the new GCSEs are on course to achieve their aims - broadly similar numbers of students achieving 4 and 7 (the old C and A grades) means students can be confident they have the results they deserve.

"At the same time, the increased differentiation amongst high performing students with the new 9 grade will be helpful for universities to pick out the most able students.  The results achieved by students in leading free schools - one of the government's flagship programmes - have been truly extraordinary and shows what enormous value they have added to our school system."

*Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union, said: “Congratulations to students and their teachers for all the hard work they have put into achieving their GCSE results this year, despite the chaos created by the rushed in reforms.

“This year it has been impossible for teachers to predict their students’ results because of lack of certainty in the new 9-1 grade boundaries. We are already hearing that students who had expected to receive a 9 (A* equivalent) have been disappointed as they have received a 7 or 8. As well as impacting students individually, this could lead to a substantial increase in requests for papers to be re-marked.

“We suspect that the fall in A*-C grades (equivalent to grades 9-4) reflects the impact of the government’s ill-thought-out policy to push all students to do the EBacc subjects. The EBacc has absolutely decimated the opportunity for students to choose subjects that could enable them to succeed and is denying them access to a wide range of vocational courses that they would be better suited to."

*Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said: "Students, teachers and schools should be given huge credit for making the best of a very challenging situation. Students only get one go at education, so it is not good enough for a whole cohort to be used as guinea pigs in this way. These changes were brought in far too quickly and without adequate investment.
"This is why the Liberal Democrats have called for the curriculum to be taken out of the hands of politicians and instead managed by an arms length body that works with examining boards and teachers to ensure these major changes are properly resourced and thought through."

*Minister for school standards, Nick Gibb, said: "Today, hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds find out the results of two years or more of hard work and study. They will now move onto the next phase of their education well equipped for what lies ahead and I would like to thank their teachers whose dedication and hard work has helped them achieve success.

“The government's new gold-standard GCSEs in English and maths have been benchmarked against the best in the world, raising academic standards for pupils. These reforms represent another step in our drive to raise standards, so that pupils have the knowledge and skills they need to compete in a global workplace.

“The fruits of these reforms will be seen in the years to come, but already pupils and teachers are rising to the challenge with more than 50,000 top 9 grades awarded across the new GCSEs and more than two thirds of entries sitting the tougher English and maths exams securing a grade 4 or C and above - a standard pass.

“As we saw with last week’s new A-levels, we are beginning to see the our reforms translating into higher standards, improving opportunities and the life chances of millions of young people and helping to fulfil the voracious demand for knowledgeable and skilled young people from Britain’s dynamic and growing economy.”

For all the latest news and views on GCSE results day, please visit our specialist GCSE results hub. 

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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