It’s impossible to compare GCSE results, so don’t try

The new system makes comparisons with previous years impossible – heads and governors need to communicate this, argue Geoff Barton and Emma Knights

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In case anyone wasn’t aware, this summer’s examination results season is going to be “volatile”, especially for GCSEs.

How do we know? The chief regulator of Ofqual, Sally Collier, has said so. In a recent speech at an examination symposium, she warned that “individual schools could experience more variation than normal”.

We think it’s important that everyone knows this – everyone, except students. For them, results day this year should be what results days every year really ought to be – a celebration of what, after 11 or so years of schooling, they have individually achieved. This day should be a symbolic marker of the transition from one phase of education to the next stage of life. For most students and their teachers, any results day should be one of joy.

That’s why our respective organisations welcome Ms Collier’s candour and caution. It’s important that governors, parents and the local media understand that this year’s GCSE examination results can’t be compared neatly with those of previous years.

A fresh start was one of the main tenets behind Michael Gove’s decision to call for a new suite of qualifications with a 1-9 marking system. The idea was to ratchet up standards and to use a grading system that made like-for-like comparisons with previous years impossible.

Whether we agree or not with that decision, and especially the resulting speed with which teachers and school leaders have had to work to implement new syllabuses, new schemes of work and new marking samples, this year’s GCSE results day will mark the beginning of this new era.

And, as Ms Collier says, although the national stabilisers of “comparable outcomes” will hold the number of new grade 4s at a similar level to old grade Cs, there is likely to be considerable volatility within a range of subjects in a range of schools. Indeed, some schools are likely to see significant surprises in their results. That’s why we want all governors and trustees to be aware of the changes. We echo the chief regulator’s “no knee-jerk reactions” mantra.

School leaders often feel vulnerable even in stable times under the weight of accountability, media scrutiny, and looming Ofsted inspections. They know how much rests on any year’s results.

We know that many headteachers already fear that something like “football manager syndrome” exists – a lurking worry that they might lose their jobs on the basis of one set of results.

Both our organisations work to make sure this does not happen. Governing boards are, after all, subject to employment law like every other employer in the land. And that’s why we particularly welcome this year’s clear pronouncements from Ofqual and Ofsted not to treat this as an ordinary exam year.

A new era of qualifications

This summer’s grades may or may not look like last summer’s. Whether they do or not, we must keep saying loudly and boringly that this is the beginning of a new system. The idea was quite explicitly to kick-start a new era with new qualifications and new grading.

Let’s make sure there is not a narrative of chaos or confusion on results day this year. Let’s make sure local media are reporting the baseline pass rate at grade 4 and, beyond that, they simply focus on individual case studies of students at all levels, from all backgrounds. Together, we want to nudge parents and pupils to do the same.

So if the GCSE results look great overall, let’s celebrate without smugness or hubris. And if they are disappointing, let’s not jump to conclusions that it’s a failure of management, or a result of poor teaching, or a sign that the school is on the slide.

We won’t know what’s happened statistically until a reasonable and dispassionate post-mortem on results has been held once the new term is under way. It can wait until students have gone home with their exam slips.

So as results season approaches, it’s most definitely time to hold our nerve, and also to focus on the only thing that matters – the individual successes of our students.

They, after all, are the ones for whom these results matter. They are the people we should concentrate on. Here’s to their success.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governance Association

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