'We must give our attention to the students at the margins, those least well served by today’s new GCSEs'

GCSE results day 2017: In this post-storm lull, we must ask how the reformed qualification will help those students in the middle and lower ability range

Geoff Barton

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Today feels a bit like what it must feel like when one of those cutely-named tropical storms that was heading our way changes its geographical mind and heads back out to sea.

Certainly, some schools and colleges have witnessed first-hand the volatility of GCSE results that we had all been anticipating. For many though, today has felt eerily calm, even anti-climactic.

Which leaves a lot of people wondering what the obsession with reforming GCSEs so hastily was really about.

With results overall managed to ensure they look much like those of any other year, it’s no surprise that many parents and employers must look on in bewilderment.

If this was all about "rigour" and "raising standards", why does the national picture look so eerily familiar? What was it all about? And was the level of angst, and spending, actually worth it?

More seriously, in light of yet another report telling us about our international deficiencies, might it be that we have been focusing on precisely the wrong issues?

This week, in another of its forensic reports, the Education Policy Institute looked at how students in England do in reading and maths. It compared them with their counterparts in Programme for International Student Assessment-topping jurisdictions.

Yet again, it seems, we find ourselves sent to the naughty step.

As the report bluntly puts it: “England’s education system needs to improve significantly if it is to be on par with the leading countries in maths and reading.”

'A huge job to be done'

Since only around 40 per cent of our pupils meet the international benchmark – the new grade 5 – there’s a huge job to be done. The EPI estimates this means some 60,000 students need to do better.

So here we are on GCSE results day. And in this post-storm lull, it’s not unreasonable to ask quite how the reformed qualification will help those students in the middle and lower ability range – our national key marginal cohort.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Nick Gibb, the government minister responsible for school standards, said: “Previous governments were not prepared to take the difficult decisions that you need to take if you are going to reverse years of decline and stagnation in the education system.”

Now I’ve never been a minister for school standards, but I was an English teacher for 32 years and here’s what I know: you don’t improve teaching by rewriting exams. The Association of School and College Leaders' qualification expert reports that every year from 2009 through to the final completion of the current reforms (2020), there will be only one year in which teachers have not been distracted from teaching by curriculum or qualification changes.

The key word there is "distracted". Because time spent on new stuff is time not spent getting better at teaching familiar stuff. Teaching is a craft that needs relentless sharpening.

Educational 'distraction'

In the government’s obsession with the top-end, and soundbites of "rigour" and "toughness", what we see served up is potentially the biggest educational distraction of the past decade.

This week’s EPI report sets out the problem – not enough children do well enough in the basics.

But it also gave us the answer: "England (and indeed the other UK nations) needs to focus on the lowest attaining pupils – who are over-represented in the UK compared to world leading nations."

So here we have the unglamorous, grinding reality, the stuff that won’t lead to quick-hit political wins, but the issue which matters most in improving social mobility and closing attainment gaps.

It’s those middle and lower ability students who need our relentless focus – the ones for whom learning is neither intuitive nor always enjoyable; the ones most likely to become disaffected by a shoe-horned curriculum diet; the ones who, as teachers and school leaders, we always used to celebrate when they managed to get their grade C in some subjects.

None of our international competitors will take the same gleeful delight in designing a tougher qualification that leaves more children and their parents feeling disappointed at the end of 11 years.

At some point we must give our attention – undistracted and laser-sharp – to the students at the margins, to those least well served by today’s new GCSEs.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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