Employers and colleges could circumvent ministers’ attempts to “raise standards” through new-look GCSE grading by asking applicants to jobs and courses for grades below the “good pass” level set by the government, it has emerged.
The reaction came in the wake of changes to GCSE grades in England that will involve the A* to G scale being replaced by grades 9 to 1 – with 9 being the top result.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said that in a bid to raise the bar, a grade 5 will be deemed a “good pass” and equivalent to a C. This is despite a C grade being statistically comparable to the lower grade 4.
The grade 5 will be used as the pass mark for school accountability measures, but Ms Morgan’s approach could be undermined if the main consumers of GCSE grades – colleges and employers – decide that a grade 4 is satisfactory in cases where they currently ask for a C.
These groups are in early talks about the new qualifications, the first of which will be examined in 2017, and sources have said that some firms are expected to adopt such an approach.
The news comes amid warnings that organisations could be met with legal challenges if they require a grade 5 from students taught in England but an easier-to-attain grade C from those who have taken GCSEs in Wales or Northern Ireland, where the new grading system is not being introduced.
Michael O’Sullivan, chief executive of Cambridge International Examinations, told TES that the changes risked creating “a significant equity and equality problem”.
“If they [colleges and employers] maintain the C standard for Wales and Northern Ireland, it would arguably be discriminatory for candidates taking GCSEs in England to be asked for a 5,” he said. “But if you made it a B in Wales and a 5 in England, it would be discriminatory against the Welsh candidates. It looks as though the easiest thing to do will be to use the 4, because it translates directly.”
‘Damaging the brand’
A spokesman for employers’ group the CBI said businesses were concerned that the new system could “damage the GCSE brand”. Firms wanted all students taking GCSEs to be “on a level playing field”, he added.
“Exams flying under the same banner must be directly comparable and equally valued by employers,” the spokesman said. “Business would not want to see young people at a disadvantage because of where they sit their exam.”
Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, told TES that colleges were in early talks about whether to ask for a 4 or a 5 in place of a C, but “wouldn’t want to discriminate” against candidates.
“They will want to make sure the qualification requirement is the same for everyone, as far as they can,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said the new grading system “gives young people a more precise record of their achievements”.
She added: “The level of a ‘good pass’ will be set at grade 5, raising aspirations to match expectations in other top-performing countries. We will use the measure to hold ourselves and schools to account, but it is for employers, universities and colleges to decide the entry grade that is appropriate for their jobs or courses.”
Under the new system, designed to raise standards to the equivalent of systems in Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the bottom of a current grade C will be linked to the bottom of the new grade 4.
Grade 5 will represent the top third of the marks for a current grade C and the bottom third for a grade B.