GCSE results: 'My worry is for those who have failed to reach basic benchmarks in English and maths'

A good pass in the core subjects is treated by employers as the bare minimum for even the most junior positions. So how do we help those students who have failed in their second attempt to make the grade, asks the chief executive of the Sutton Trust

Lee Elliot Major

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Make no mistake: unveiling your GCSE results is a life-defining moment.

Much has been said about the declining importance of GCSEs now that the education leaving age has been extended to 18. Yet in many ways they have become even more critical for young people’s prospects.

Whatever the future holds for our school exams, the core subjects of English and maths will always matter most.

Thursday's national figures were a first glimpse of the overall picture. But there are worrying trends in English and maths results, particularly for those pupils who have taken resits at age 17. In English the proportion of 16-year-olds achieving grades A*-C decreased by 1.4 percentage points this year to 71.3 per cent overall.

In maths that proportion increased by 1.4 percentage points to 70.5 per cent. However, only 29.5 per cent of 17-year-olds (and older) achieved their grade C in maths; and 26.9 per cent in English.

Education divide

My worry is with those teenagers who are on the wrong side of this education divide: those who have failed to reach even the most basic benchmarks in English and maths. A grade C at GSCE in these core subjects is increasingly treated by employers as the bare minimum when recruiting even for the most junior positions.

These stark figures for resits echo the evidence suggesting that it will be extremely tough for some children to reach these benchmarks at the second time of asking, despite all the Government’s efforts to help them catch up.

As Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today: “We have to generate more and better evidence of which teaching and learning strategies work for 16-18 year olds if we want to make sure re-sitting their exams is worthwhile.”

'Some will never make the grade'

This year of course marks the end of an education era. In the coming years we all have to get used to a completely new world of test results: A-C grades will be gone and all the talk will about Progress 8 and 1-9 grades.

An enduring problem was that school league tables diverted attention and resources in schools on pupils who were on the borderline of achieving five GCSEs at grades A-C, as it was this headline statistic that schools were primarily judged on.

However, the new system will judge schools on progress over a range of academic subjects. Not only this but the Sutton Trust’s recent report suggests that the reforms could lead to more pupils achieving good GCSEs in English and maths, refuting claims that the more academic curriculum would distract focus from these core subjects. 

However these gains in sophistication will mean losses in simplicity: it remains to be seen what students, parents, teachers, employers and universities will make of the new system.

And as my colleague Conor Ryan has also argued, not everyone will be able to achieve the so-called English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – which includes English, maths, two sciences, languages and history or geography. As with this year’s results,  it will be still important that we do something for the 30 per cent of pupils who sadly will never make the grade.

Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

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Lee Elliot Major

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