GCSE results yesterday endured their biggest fall in the qualification’s history, as the proportion of A* to C pass grades dropped to 66.9 per cent.
But it is unlikely that this slump can be explained by exam regulator Ofqual’s clampdown on grade inflation, or any sense that this year’s candidates were less intelligent than their predecessors.
The signs are that the drop in grades is linked to two government reforms: a new requirement for pupils to resit GCSEs in English and maths if they do not gain a grade C in Year 11, and the introduction of a new school accountability measure, Progress 8.
The first of these reforms has had an obvious impact on the results, because the pass rate was lower among pupils who had previously failed to gain a C than it was among pupils taking their GCSEs for the first time.
The overall A* to C pass rate fell by 2.1 percentage points, but the drop was far bigger among pupils aged 17 and over (7.6 percentage points). The decline among Year 11 pupils was smaller, at just 1.3 percentage points.
In English and maths, the impact of resits on average grades was sharper still. The A* to C pass rate for English fell by 5.2 percentage points overall, but for 16-year-olds, its fall was much smaller, at 1.3 percentage points, with the proportion of Year 11 pupils gaining A and A* grades rising.
And in maths, the headline figure of an overall fall of 2.3 percentage points in A* to C passes hid positive results for 16-year-olds – among whom the pass rate actually rose.
Yesterday’s figures showed a steep rise of 23.2 per cent in GCSE entries from pupils aged 17 and over, as the resit requirement took effect. The figure had already risen last year as sixth-forms and colleges started entering pupils for resits in preparation for the requirement.
The second reform, the launch of Progress 8 as the key school GCSE accountability measure, has had a more complex effect on results. It gives an incentive for schools to enter more pupils in “traditional” subjects than they may have done, and is much more high-stakes than the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
Change in entries
This year’s figures suggest schools entered more of their lower-attaining pupils for academic GCSEs, causing the pass rates for those traditional subjects – and for GCSEs as a whole – to fall. Entries for GCSE science rose by more than a fifth, and exam boards believe that pupils who previously would have been entered for vocational qualifications are now being entered for GCSEs in the subject. Entries also rose in history and geography.
The results in those subjects fell, with the proportion of A* to C grades dropping by 3, 2.8 and 3.8 percentage points in history, geography and science respectively.
Encouraging more pupils to study traditional subjects has been one of the government’s stated aims for GCSE reform. But yesterday’s results are likely to spark a debate about the value of entering pupils for traditional GCSEs in which they score low grades, as opposed to vocational or other qualifications.
Despite schools’ apparent willingness to follow the principles behind Progress 8 by increasing entries in science and the humanities, the measure has not been enough to stem a decline in pupils taking languages. A slight rise in entries for Spanish was offset by drops for French and German.
The decline in language entries suggests schools are focussing on Progress 8 at the expense of the EBacc. Languages are a crucial EBacc component, but schools can maximise Progress 8 scores without entering pupils for these subjects. To maximise Progress 8 scores, pupils must take at least three EBacc subjects in addition to English and maths – but history, geography and sciences all count towards this.
Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications, representing exam boards, said “significant movement” in entries driven partly by performance measures and resits had affected results.