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‘Today’s GCSE results data reflects ministerial meddling as much as academic performance’

The trend of the results tell us more about policy-making than the work of schools, writes the leader of one heads’ union

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The trend of the results tell us more about policy-making than the work of schools, writes the leader of one heads’ union

The decline in GCSE pass rates, particularly in English and Maths, is a direct consequence of the rapid reform of GCSEs rather than a reflection of the performance of students and schools. We have more retakes post-sixteen plus a possible flight to IGCSEs. 

In fact, we're left wondering whether exam data tells us anything meaningful about performance anymore – as opposed to a record of how many things the government has changed in recent years.

The effect of Progress 8

For me, the interesting story is in the data we don't yet fully have – in the effect of Progress 8 and the possible effects of a future compulsory EBacc. 

We have seen a rise in entries to some core academic subjects and a decline in entries to many creative subjects.

We have also seen a fall in results in some academic subjects – probably as some students have been entered for them who wouldn't have been in previous years. This is not necessarily a bad thing – exposure to a strong curriculum actually matters more than the results achieved. But, we need to recognise this when we hold schools accountable. They are doing something different. 

An exception to the trends above lies in the continued decline in many modern foreign languages, especially French and German. This parallels equally worrying trends at A-level. A major cause of this is the difficulty of recruiting staff. This shows an incoherence in government policy – increased emphasis on academic subjects without an investment in recruitment and retention. This can only get worse in years to come without urgent attention. 

The government have not yet built a system that can cope effectively with a compulsory Ebacc. Progress 8 is achieving some positive results in rebalancing the curriculum and retains room for creative subjects. The conclusion is that we should probably pause at this point. We urgently need to see the full effects of the Progress 8 measure before moving forward.

Governments rush change 

The elimination of the C/D boundary is potentially one of the most important and positive changes of the last decade and we cannot yet trace its effect. All too often governments rush on to the next change before the system has absorbed the previous one. 

We have also seen an interesting rise in early entries to subjects neglected by the Ebacc, including RS and music. Early entry has had a dubious history but this time it may be a positive example of schools attempting to find curriculum space in spite of the accountability system they face. Those are both vital subjects. 

The data today speaks more to policy-making than academic performance. In fact academic performance is getting lost in the turbulence. It won't stop people drawing conclusions about students and schools, however weak the data. Furthermore, we are not even close to the end of this process – the changes to come are even more significant than the changes we have experienced. 

In the face of this turmoil, we urgently need a better way of publishing, reporting on and acting on exam data. If we don't find this new way, we will mismanage performance and miss vital information about what is and isn't working. 

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets as @RussellHobby

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