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We mustn't let GCSE Grade 4 become the 'Poundland' pass

The message from the DfE is clear – Grade 4 and 5 are both equivalent to a C. But, grade 4 is Poundland C, and grade 5 is a Waitrose C, writes one head of humanities

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The message from the DfE is clear – Grade 4 and 5 are both equivalent to a C. But, grade 4 is Poundland C, and grade 5 is a Waitrose C, writes one head of humanities

They may be numerical next-door neighbours, but in terms of social status, the numbers four and five have been drifting apart from each other for many years. Number five has done very well for itself, coming to be associated with wholesome healthy achievement – the 5 A Day campaign for healthy eating, the Famous Five adventurers, high-five celebrations and so on. 

In contrast, number four seems to have gone in the opposite direction, bringing to mind four-letter words, the notorious “Gang of Four” political faction and the well-publicised past failings at security firm G4S. So wide is the social gorge between the two numbers that the famous old football score “Forfar four, East Fife five” now looks like less of a tongue-twister and more like a humiliating thrashing for East Fife. 

So when the Department of Education first let slip that the new GCSE grade 5 would be a “good” pass we could immediately sense the ground crumbling beneath the feet of vulnerable little grade 4. Even though they then altered the word “good” to “strong” and reassured everyone that 4, too, could be called a pass – a “standard” pass – the underlying message was clear to all: grade 4 was going to be – in their middle-class world – a flaky Poundland grade C, while 5 would be the equivalent of a Waitrose C.

Ofsted confirmed this Waitrosification when it declared that grade 5 would now be its new line in the sand when assessing school “pass” rates, despite 4 being the fairer comparison with previous results. You could almost hear grade 4 sigh “Et tu Brute” when that Ofsted knife went into it. Staff in secondary schools could be heard to mutter something similar.

GCSE pass masters

Even those of us with merely a “standard” grasp of maths could predict from the start that grade 4 would struggle to maintain a grade C exchange rate in the new, ill-conceived 1 to 9 world order. Whereas  C (relative to G) could legitimately hold its head high among the upper GCSE echelons, grade 4 has no fewer than 5 grades above it.

Companies such as BMW in Oxford have started to interpret things that way, rejecting 4 as their new “C” when outlining the minimum grades needed in English and maths for their apprenticeship programme.  Similarly, I hear parents of many old-currency “C/D borderline” children curtly dismiss the idea of a grade 4 as an acceptable aspirational target for their child – despite it still being a genuine old C and a great achievement for the students concerned.

Some of us in schools must also share part of the blame for the widespread devaluation of grade 4, in many instances now refusing students onto an A-level course unless they have at least a “Waitrose” in the subject.  Many worthy grade-4 students are finding an increasing number of doors closed to them.

Surely every teacher and teaching assistant needs, instead, to open their doors to the 4s and ensure that all interested parties are aware of the true value – including Ofsted inspectors. To focus on 5 at the expense of 4 will not “raise standards”. It will merely belittle, each year, the genuine success stories of thousands of hardworking middle-ability students and their teachers – and similarly downgrade the many other real accomplishments at grades below that. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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