'In the new GCSE grading system, schools will once again teach to specific boundaries and lower-ability students will be ignored'

29th November 2016 at 15:31
Subject Genius, Andrew Virnuls, The joy of scaling
Despite the government introducing a new GCSE grading system, the old problems will remain, one headteacher argues.

Change can often be a force for good. However, too much change causes fatigue, uncertainty and destabilisation ─ and for a long time now, the education world has been in a perpetual state of change.

Change management has always been part of a headteacher’s job, but I am increasingly finding that I am expected to manage changes that I am at odds with.

My latest concern is the new GCSE 1-9 grading system, which we are all learning about bit by bit. Here are just some of the things we now know:

  • Grade 5 will be the magic number needed for entry to many jobs or further education courses. Grade 5 is broadly equivalent to a top C or a low B, which means that the bar has been raised.
  • Roughly the same percentage of students will gain grades 4-9 that in previous years have gained A*-C. Yet, the reporting measure will be 5-9.
  • Grade 9 passes are going to be as rare as hen’s teeth, with possibly only 2 or 3 per cent nationally.
  • The grade 6 to 7 boundary will be important in terms of points awarded for Progress 8.
  • Further education colleges are saying that they will accept outcomes between grades 4-6, depending on national outcomes and the specific subject applied for.

All of this means that our current Year 11 are guinea pigs, being taught new syllabuses with precious little exam board guidance. There is no information on grade boundaries and many maths and English teachers feel very alone, frustrated and unsure as they deliver the new content. Setting targets or giving predictions is a fool’s game at the moment and everyone is just trying to hold their nerve and concentrate on high quality teaching and learning in the hope that this will deliver good results.

New GCSE, same problems

Inevitably, though, teachers will focus on the greater prizes: the grade 4/5 and grade 6/7 boundaries. Because grade 5 is considered a "good" pass and a grade 7 will equate to a low A in old money, these boundaries will be crucial for referencing outcomes. And both of these grades also attract higher points for Progress 8.

This brings me to my main point of contention. In the new system, not all grades are created equal. Some have a higher point value, especially the higher grades.

There has long been a fear that Progress 8 would favour those schools with high ability cohorts and this now seems to be playing out. For example, a school with a lower than average ability cohort may set aspirational targets of Fisher Family Trust 20 for all students in Year 11 and yet find that their Progress 8 prediction is still negative.

My worry is that, once again, schools will focus on teaching to specific grade boundaries and lower-ability students will be ignored at the expense of chasing the higher grades.

It seems that, amongst all this change, this is one problem that might just remain the same.

Julia Vincent is an executive headteacher in Hampshire

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