Schools face a step change in demand under a key GCSE accountability measure, with the proportion of pupils reaching the required standard expected to plunge below one in seven, TES can reveal.
From next year, pupils will be required to start scoring new GCSE grade 5s instead of the current, easier grade Cs if they are to achieve the English Baccalaureate, the Department for Education has said.
An Education Datalab analysis, shared with TES, forecasts that the change will result in the proportion of state school pupils achieving the EBacc dropping from nearly a quarter last year (24.3 per cent) to just 14 per cent by 2018 (see box, “The Education Datalab research”, opposite).
That is likely to make a major difference to official judgements on schools’ performance that could jeopardise heads’ jobs. The DfE stated in November that “the increased importance of the EBacc” would be a feature of future school Ofsted inspections.
The DfE’s ruling on the need for grade 5s for the EBacc contrasts with its stance on post-16 resits for GCSEs in English and maths – a grade 4 will be sufficient for pupils to avoid mandatory retakes until at least 2019.
The EBacc decision was outlined to TES by the department this week. But heads’ leaders said that they had yet to be informed and were concerned about the implications.
“That’s news to me,” said Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union. “What [requiring a grade 5] will do is add even more weight to the EBacc measure and make it a more stringent goal.
“Our view is that Progress 8 works and EBacc is being layered on top of that to apply additional pressure. We have a history of these things emerging as low-key and suddenly becoming very strict accountability measures, and I don’t think anybody trusts that won’t happen with EBacc.”
At the moment, students achieve the EBacc if they gain at least a C in five subjects: English, maths, a science, history or geography and a language. But only the highest third of entries in each subject currently achieving a C would be worth a grade 5 under the new system.
Exams watchdog Ofqual has said exam boards will use statistical predictions in 2017 to ensure that roughly the same proportion of pupils who achieved at least a C in 2016 will achieve at least a 4 in 2017. So it is inevitable that fewer pupils will gain a grade 5 next year than would have gained a C.
‘Tough on the pupils’
Researchers are warning that the change could undermine the government’s intention of increasing EBacc take-up to 90 per cent. Rebecca Allen, the director of Education Datalab, said: “There’s a set of children who might have been pushed into EBacc who now might not be, because [schools think] there’s no chance of them getting a grade 5.”
Denis Oliver, the executive headteacher of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School in Cheshire (see box, above), said: “The disappointment in August next year [on GCSE results day] will be absolutely incredible.
“If you think about the kids who struggled to get their five A*s to Cs and they do it and you congratulate them – well, next year that’s not going to happen to the same extent.”
Mike Treadaway, who compiled the Education Datalab figures, said that the drop in EBacc achievement would hit some schools harder than others, with limited impact on grammars and “schools with very low attaining intakes”.
But, he added: “There are schools in the middle ground, with lots of kids clustered around the C grade boundary, [which] will be affected much more.
“I’ve got some concern that it will impact differently on different schools and that it will be important for governors and for Ofsted to understand that.”
The news comes in the same month that ministers had to defend tougher requirements in key stage 2 Sats that resulted in the proportion of pupils achieving the “expected” standard dropping from 80 to 53 per cent.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Setting the level of a ‘good pass’ at grade 5 will mean that we can hold schools to account, through the performance tables, for how they support their pupils to achieve their best.
“We have already published information for schools detailing how the new system will work and we will continue to work with them to ensure they are well prepared.”
How attainment could stay the same while results fall
At Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School in Cheshire, number-crunching suggests that the proportion of pupils gaining the marks needed to achieve an English Baccalaureate will fall sharply.
This year 77 per cent of pupils at the school are expected to achieve a C or higher in maths, 77 per cent in English and 78 per cent in science.
But Denis Oliver, the school’s executive headteacher (pictured), said that if attainment levels stayed constant, the proportion gaining a new grade 5 or above in the reformed GCSEs would be 57 per cent, 55 per cent and 53 per cent respectively.
The school has introduced measures to prepare pupils for new GCSEs, such as extra mock exams and a reduction in subjects studied, to free up time for the core subjects.
But Mr Oliver is still worried about what the expectation of a grade 5 in the EBacc subjects will mean for pupils.
“How can you stand in front of a child and say, ‘If you do just as well as this group, your results aren’t going to be as good [as theirs]?’ ” he said. “Preparing them means preparing them for disappointment. We shouldn’t be doing that to children’s lives.”
The Education Datalab research
Education Datalab researchers used the national pupil database, containing information on all state school pupils, to forecast the effects of the new GCSEs – graded 9 to 1 instead of A* to G – on the EBacc.
A new grade 5 will be made up of approximately the top third of C grade entries in each subject and the bottom third of B grade marks, with a grade 4 representing the bottom two thirds of C grade marks.
Researchers used data on pupils’ prior attainment at key stage 2 to identify which of them in each EBacc subject in 2015 were in the top third of C grade marks.
And those pupils, together with those who achieved a B or above, in the necessary subjects, were counted as EBacc achievers.
In 2017, the new 9 to 1 grades will only apply in maths and English, with Cs in science, history, geography and languages still counting towards EBacc achievement. Had the 2015 cohort been subjected to this system, Education Datalab found, 19 per cent would have achieved the EBacc.
In 2018, the 9 to 1 grades will apply to all of the EBacc subjects. Had this grading system applied to the 2015 cohort, researchers found, 14 per cent would have achieved the EBacc.
The research assumes that the number of pupils being entered for EBacc subjects will remain constant for the next few years.
What is a pass grade?
Former education secretary Nicky Morgan made it clear last year that a “good pass” in reformed GCSEs would be a grade 5, even though the less demanding grade 4 will be statistically equal to a C grade.
“It’s a step up from where we are now and really does raise the bar,” she said. But the Department for Education has effectively allowed the grade 4 to count as a pass in other cases, creating confusion about what really counts. The requirement for pupils to resit GCSEs in English and maths if they don’t achieve a pass grade is one example. A pass is currently defined as a C as far as the resit requirement is concerned and – for 2017 and 2018 at least – it will be set at grade 4 rather than 5.
And a guidance document published by the exams regulator Ofqual said that the Department for Education “does not expect employers, colleges or universities to raise the bar to a grade 5 if a grade 4 would meet...requirements”.