A headteachers' union has launched a “commission of inquiry” into GCSEs, after it emerged that more than half of pupils in state-funded schools did not achieve a grade 5 "strong pass" in English and maths.
The Association of School and College Leaders said that the current system of comparable outcomes was leaving “many students feeling crushed rather than proud”.
According to performance statistics published today, 57 per cent of pupils in state-funded schools did not achieve a grade 5 or above in English and maths.
ASCL said that while the statistics no longer cover pupils who did not achieve a grade 4 ‘standard pass’, this was likely to be “over one third”.
Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said: “As a society, we must surely question a system which sends out such a negative message to so many young people.
“While we understand that the government is making a distinction between grade 5 as a measure of school performance and grade 4 as the standard required for onward progression for students, we fear that this is an extremely confusing message for young people, their parents and employers.
“The result is that many young people will have felt deflated and uncertain after taking this summer’s exams despite having worked their hardest. Those who did not achieve a grade 4 also face the grind of compulsory resits.”
Mr Barton also questioned Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ system, which ensures that results at a national level remain roughly the same each year, assuming that the prior attainment of the cohort is also similar to previous years.
“What the public perhaps doesn’t realise is that it is predestined that about one-third of young people will fail to achieve at least a grade 4," he said.
“This is because the percentage of pupils attaining each grade is more or less fixed by a system known as comparable outcomes, in which the distribution of grades is guided by what cohorts of similar ability achieved in previous years.”
While this system “has the virtue of ensuring that pupils don’t lose out from one year to the next by changes in exams”, Mr Barton said it meant “we will always have a forgotten third”.
“We have to do better for these young people. It cannot be right that we have a system which leaves so many students feeling crushed rather than proud. We have to find a way of better recognising their abilities.”
He said ASCL’s commission of inquiry would “initially focus on English”, and would look “at how we might better reflect the achievements of all our young people”.
The commission is made largely up of practising English teachers and school and college leaders, and is chaired by the educationalist and writer Roy Blatchford.
It has held an initial meeting and will submit a final report in 2019.