What Ofqual’s new grade system means for top pupils

29th April 2016 at 00:00
Exam regulator’s ‘tailored approach’ to 9-1 scale risks damaging uptake in ‘hard’ subjects, heads say

The exams regulator has spelled out for the first time what effect the shift from the A* to G grading system to a 9-1 numerical scale could mean for the highest-performing pupils at GCSE.

Schools have known for some time that the proportion of pupils gaining the top grade will fall in the switch to the new number scale. But a new document from the exams regulator lays out more precisely the predicted drops in the proportions of pupils receiving the top grade by subject.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most dramatic-looking falls appear in subjects where a high proportion of pupils achieve A* grades. In Latin, for example, where 44 per cent currently gain the top grade, only just over 30 per cent will gain the new grade 9. In classical Greek, where more than 62 per cent gain an A*, only 40.9 per cent will receive a 9.

Overall, in all subjects, the proportion getting the top grade will fall from 8.4 to 5.1 per cent of candidates.

The 9-1 system aims to differentiate between the very highest-performing candidates. And under Ofqual’s proposed system for rewarding the best students, the proportion of top grades will be linked to the ability of the subject cohort; the watchdog has ruled out a proposal to award grade 9s to the top 20 per cent of all students gaining grade 7 or above.

The difficulty of getting a grade 9 could put schools and students off entering certain subjects, heads have said. The biggest fears centre on languages, which have already seen GCSE and A-level entries fall. Under the proposals, the proportion receiving a top grade in French, for example, will fall from 11.8 to 5.2 per cent.

The latest Language Trends Survey, published earlier this month, finds that MFL teachers feel that subjects such as French, German and Spanish are treated more harshly than others. In December, Ofqual’s own research into the comparability of GCSE and A-level subjects found that it was more difficult to achieve a top grade in languages.

Peter Hamilton, head of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School, an independent school in Hertfordshire, said that Ofqual’s proposals would make the situation worse for languages.

“It will make it even harder for students to gain top marks in a subject area that has already been getting hammered over the last five years,” Mr Hamilton said.

He added that heads would think twice before entering students for subjects where it might be tougher to gain the highest grades: “We’d love to believe that heads make every decision on the basis of education, but there are accountability measures in place, which will make them think hard about entering their students for so-called ‘hard’ subjects.”

Fairer system?

Ofqual’s system for awarding grade 9s – which is under consultation – is known as the “tailored approach”, and is the third attempt by the watchdog to set new grade standards.

Despite the concerns of some, the approach has been welcomed elsewhere. David Blow, head of Ashcombe School in Surrey, said that it would mean subjects were treated more equally. “Everyone has accepted that fewer students would achieve a grade 9 than A*. But Ofqual has finally produced the fairest option for all subjects,” he said. “Ofqual should have just started with this research from the beginning. It addresses anomalies in English and maths when it comes to transitioning grades, and anomalies in mainstream and minority languages, such as Latin and Greek.”

Of more pressing concern for subjects such as languages, Mr Blow said, were changes at the B and C grade level, where students would end up getting a grade lower in languages compared with their other subjects.

Ofqual said it was “inevitable” that the percentage of students getting a grade 9 would be lower than those who gained an A*, as the number of grades at the top end had been increased “to allow for greater differentiation”.


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