'GCSE results should start a new national policy conversation'

This year's GCSE results should focus policymakers' attention on what really matters in education, writes the Federation of Awarding Bodies' Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright

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Universities are creating a “Frankenstein’s monster debt” says Lord Adonis. Nick Timothy, a former adviser to prime minister Theresa May, calls the UK’s higher education system a “Ponzi scheme”. Frank Field MP is encouraging “some bright spark” to “take the government and schools to court under the Trade Descriptions Act.”

As with previous years, it is fair to say that the publication of last week’s A-level results has generated strong interest, and sharper headlines, among the UK’s political leaders. However, unlike previous years, I cannot remember a time where the debate has not been so focused on "who got what grades and how many of them", but instead on whether or not our education system is fit for purpose.

There are plenty of policy areas which are already under the microscope, and the GCSE results published this week are not without their controversies. In the first instance, attention will inevitably turn to the new grading system, where GCSE results in English and maths have been graded using numbers from 9 to 1, replacing A*-G. Has enough clarity been provided to schools, providers, employers, learners, or their parents? Will there be a surge in remark requests? Is the new grading system fair? These questions have not been answered yet, and these arguments will continue to rage on for months.

GCSE results and resits

Beyond this, the government’s policy of mandatory GCSE resits continues to face challenges. The straitjacketing of learners into what will feel to many like endless resits does not seem to me to be the best way of encouraging them to go and get the technical and professional skills both they and the economy so badly need. 

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said of the policy: “This is a well-intentioned policy, but in its current form we can see that it is causing significant problems.” Like Amanda, I agree that English and maths are of fundamental importance for individuals to have success in the labour market, and should feature at the heart in technical education and apprenticeships. I am yet to hear anybody argue otherwise. There is an expectation, that the reformed GCSEs will lead to tens of thousands more students taking English and maths resits next year. Today’s results will, I suspect, embolden calls to protect and encourage English and maths in an applied context through functional skills.

Beyond these two important policy issues, my hope is that we will see a replication of the debate of last week’s A-level results. When learners actively engage and are supported in doing so with the plethora of choices available to them, there are only positive outcomes. Are we going to see a trend of increasing numbers of young people going down the technical education route? Will students consider A levels and decide against them? Will we see an increase in learners starting apprenticeships? As importantly, what will drive these decisions?

We cannot continue with a national policy conversation that sees "GCSEs-A-levels-university" as one system or the only path available and everything else as another or less. The publication of last week’s A-level results has generated a feisty but critical debate about how we as a country approach post-18 education as a whole, how we fund it, for whom and to what end. This conversation has been informed by the outcomes we want not only from A-levels, but also from universities and graduate employment. This holistic challenge to post-18 education is long overdue. I hope that this week's GCSE results will be an opportunity for pre- and post-16 education to join that conversation. Our education system as a whole will be better for it.

Stephen Wright is chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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Stephen Wright

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