When is an E grade not a failure? Pass

28th August 2009 at 01:00

This week, as thousands of learners around the country received the results of their GCSE examinations, a question they may well have been asked by those around them is: "How many did you pass?" But what will they mean as they ask, and what answer will they expect?

In general, to pass at GCSE means just one thing to most people: to achieve a grade between A* and C. Anything else may simply be classed as failure and often seen as a disappointment. But is that right?

During my work as a 14-19 adviser I once had the privilege of interviewing a Year 12 learner about his post-16 options. I asked him how he had fared at GCSE.

"I only got two GCSEs, Miss," he said. "I failed the rest."

I then asked him what grades he had achieved, to which he replied: "I had two Cs, four Ds and two Es."

"So you have eight passes then," I said.

Ever since he'd first looked at the slip of paper that listed his results, he had thought of himself as a failure, only getting two out of eight. But I was able to tell him otherwise.

But how could I do that? He had failed, hadn't he?

Well, when I listened to him repeat his results, I simply applied the definition of a pass that the GCSE itself is designed to work with. It must be seen in the right context, in the bigger educational picture. Only then can the qualification be used in the way it is intended.

In 2004, a new National Qualifications Framework was introduced which mapped progressive qualifications within different levels. GCSE grades A*-C were placed on level 2, whereas grades D-G provide the learner with a qualification at level 1.

During lifelong learning, learners can progress from one level to another until a level matching their particular potential and requirements is arrived at.

An A-level is a level 3 qualification, an honours degree a level 6, leading up to a masters at level 7 and a doctorate at level 8.

When considering the grades achieved at GCSE - whether A*-C or D-G - all are to be seen as passes at different levels in the same framework. This means that grades D-G are not to be seen as failures but qualifications on which to build within the framework structure.

I explained this to the Year 12 learner, showing him that in the context of the framework he had gained two passes at level 2 and six at level 1.

Tears glazed his eyes: "I never saw it like that, Miss," he said. "I thought I was a failure."

His GCSE results had not changed by the time we came to the end of our conversation. Each grade was the same as it had been when we first sat down together.

However, the way he now saw his results was very different, and more importantly the way he now saw himself and his future was very different, too. No longer was he a failure trying to make the best of a bad set of results.

He was a learner who had achieved something worthwhile and now possessed a new goal to build on that achievement in the future.

The aim of the National Qualifications Framework has been to enable learners to gain a clear understanding of the qualifications they possess and to help them make well-informed choices for their future development.

Unfortunately, many teachers and parents are unfamiliar with the national framework, so many learners have remained misinformed.

This lack of knowledge needs urgent attention so that qualifications can be understood and therefore used correctly. This is especially the case at the present time as the national framework is currently being transformed in Wales to become the Credit Qualification Framework for Wales.

Within this new framework, all learning will lead to the awarding of credits that can be accumulated and transferred from one sector to another, giving new significance and value to what many may previously have regarded as failure.

"How many did you pass?"

When that question is asked over and over again this summer, how will learners answer? This year, it will depend on how they define what it means to pass.

However, in years to come, as the new credit qualification framework is established, the answer to that question could be different again. Not simply because of a new understanding of what it means to succeed, but because the question asked in the first place may not be: "How many did you pass?" but something new: "How many credits did you get?"

Sian Nicholas, Education consultant and former teacher.

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