The publication of today’s GCSE results has not resolved the much-heralded uncertainties about the first wave of the reformed qualifications: English and maths, this year. The course content has been designed to be more demanding and challenging and the assessment methodologies have changed, with a focus on an end-of-course examination rather than modules. Students have been awarded some grades on a 9-1 scale (the reformed subjects), some on the old A*-G scale (the legacy subjects).
Ofqual has set the grade boundaries so that overall year-on-year performance is comparable. The government has defined a sound pass (grade 4) and a strong pass (grade 5). Schools will be measured by the proportion of strong passes achieved. Students have been advised that a sound pass will be sufficient for qualifying for sixth-form funding. A sound pass is deemed to meet the criteria for jobs that require a "pass" in English and maths.
Questions still remain: to what extent do students’ grades reflect accurately their ability, as opposed to teachers’ lack of familiarity with the new specifications and exams? How will this year’s new GCSEs inform performance management and pay progression decisions for teachers? Given that the national grade distribution will be comparable to last year’s, while individual schools are expected to show significant changes, how will the authorities and local communities understand and respond to the results achieved by a school?
Sixth forms are addressing the perennial need to balance student recruitment with high standards. It is vital that they attract a good number of 16-year-olds in order to secure their funding and maintain a broad curriculum. Without sufficient numbers of students, class sizes will have to rise, courses will be cut, efficiency savings will have to be made and as a last resort, sixth forms will be closed. If student numbers are sustained – and the budget and curriculum are protected – by lowering the entry level requirements, there is a risk that standards will fall, students will be on inappropriate courses and results will suffer.
Many sixth forms have not confirmed their entry level requirements before the new GCSE results are announced. Increasingly, it will be less about a grade achieved and more about the capabilities and competencies of the student, the inference clearly being that a grade cannot always be relied upon to tell us what students know and can do.
Risk of falling standards
The new maths A levels will be introduced this September and add a layer of complexity to decisions about entry level requirements. Which of the new GCSE grades is the most reliable indicator of the ability needed to cope with the new A level? To what extent are specialist maths A-level teachers familiar with the content of the new GCSE that their charges will have studied? What skills and knowledge should they focus on in term one to ensure a smooth transition to A-level study? Those students who achieved a grade 3 in their new maths and English GCSEs, but who are able to get a place in a sixth form, will have to re-take them. They and their teachers will be faced with the challenge of a resit in the new "fat maths" GCSE, alongside the new and more rigorous linear A levels in other subjects.
Sixth-form teachers are not averse to change. They support the ambitions to raise standards, prepare students better for adult and working life and differentiate more transparently among the higher grades. Their willingness to prepare new schemes of work, new lesson plans and teaching resources, as they move to the new qualifications is commendable. They will continue to do all that they can to get the best outcomes for young people, but this period of transition, from legacy to reformed qualifications, has at least two more years to run. Results days will for some time be characterised by uncertainties.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form College Association (SFCA)