GCSE results 2015: what lessons have we learned?

28th August 2015 at 01:00
TES has crunched the numbers to reveal the latest exam trends

Pupils know the future is computer-based - but not that it's multilingual

The IT crowd is in the ascendancy: more than twice as many students took a computing GCSE this year (35,414) as in 2014 (16,773), and the number of ICT entries was also up by 16 per cent to 111,934. But these technology pioneers of the future may struggle in a global workplace, because fewer and fewer are studying languages: French, German and Spanish entries were significantly down this year.

The future looked much brighter two summers ago - in 2013, entries for all three of the most popular modern foreign languages showed healthy increases. Exam boards, and everyone else, put that down to their inclusion in the government's English Baccalaureate (EBac) school performance measure. But the impact of that policy on languages appears to have all but worn off. This summer only Spanish managed to hold on to the 2013 EBac increase, with French and German back below 2013 entry levels.

The gender gap is stubborn, but it could be closing

Girls once again performed better than boys, gaining a higher proportion of both the top grades and A*-C passes. But the gender gap narrowed on both measures.

Headteachers' unions have suggested that this could be the result of the government's overhaul of GCSEs, in which coursework - which tended to favour girls - has been reduced dramatically. There is still a long way to go, however.

Girls' A*s fell by 0.1 percentage point to 8.0 per cent, but boys' remained a long way behind at a static 5.2 per cent. And at A*-C, the gap narrowed only slightly, with girls constant at 73.1 per cent and boys rising from 64.3 to 64.7 per cent.

The gender gap is even more stark in terms of subject choices. Eighty four per cent of computing entries this year came from male students, as did 58 per cent of ICT entries. Boys scored more of the top grades in maths than girls.

Exam-takers are getting older

England's results were affected by a slew of reforms this year. There was an end to modular exams, a requirement for 17-year-olds to retake English and maths GCSEs if they failed in Year 11 and the "first entry counts" policy, which means that only a student's initial attempt at a GCSE will count in a school's performance measures, even if they later retake it and get a higher mark. Unsurprisingly, this led to a sharp drop in 15-year-olds taking exams and a rise in 17-year-olds doing so.

It's hard to analyse trends.

The reforms affect only England, meaning that students in Wales and Northern Ireland can carry on repeating GCSEs to improve their grades. As a result, the UK exam cohort is starting to diverge, making comparisons of trends increasingly difficult. It makes summaries difficult, too, and this year's results-day headlines - which said that the proportion of top grades had fallen - are a case in point. It is true that A* and A grades fell overall, by 0.1 percentage point. But among 16-year-olds the proportion of these grades was actually up. The big decrease was among 17-year-olds, for whom A* and A grades dropped from 9.5 per cent to 7.9 per cent, largely as a result of the sharp rise in entries from those retaking papers that they had failed the previous year.

Specific subjects also show differences from country to country. Speaking and listening teacher assessments have been removed from English GCSE grades in England but remain in place in Northern Ireland and Wales.

.and it's about to get even harder

From 2017, students in England will take tough new GCSEs, which will be graded from 9 to 1, with 9 being the top grade. But because the new tests are being phased in, students in the first two years of the reforms will receive some 9-1 grades and some A* to G grades. Confusing for students? Definitely, but perhaps even more confusing for anyone trying to make sense of the national picture.

In England, the C grade will be statistically linked to the 4 grade in the new exams. So will it be fair to compare the proportion of students getting a 4-9 in England to those getting an A* to C in Wales and Northern Ireland? Perhaps, but the government's decision to set the bar for a "good pass" at grade 5 in the new exams could muddy the waters further.

Overall stability can mask chaos for individual schools

Big swings in results from year to year are unlikely at a national level, because the exam regulator Ofqual oversees a process that links national results to those of previous years and to the previous performance of the cohort of students. Yet the picture can be very different at school level. This year, some headteachers said they feared for their jobs after seeing a drop of up to 20 percentage points in A*-C grades in GCSE maths. This was despite grades rising nationally, with the proportion receiving an A* to C grade in maths up 0.9 percentage points to 63.3 per cent.

Going international won't necessarily avoid the chaos

There has been a rapid rise in the number of schools using alternative qualifications such as the IGCSE and the International Baccalaureate, partly in response to concerns about GCSE and A-level reforms. But these haven't been problem-free either: teachers have raised concerns about significant and unexpected drops in English language IGCSE grades, and have described IB marking as a "lottery".

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