Each year there is debate about whether exams have become easier, thereby casting a shadow over the glory of the Year 11s. Commentators who have raised genuine concerns about grade inflation over the years have been met with criticism and dismissed as killjoys who are under-valuing the efforts of young people.
This year, as the legacy of Michael Gove’s reforms begins to trickle through in the form of the new 9–1 grading system for English and maths, that debate is set to shift slightly but the tenet of it will remain. We are now starting to question whether the new GCSEs are too difficult and whether we are setting pupils up to fail.
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While the efforts of pupils should be celebrated, we shouldn’t be chastising those who question whether the country should be doing better. I realise the irony of this statement, given my role as said commentator, but let’s park that for a moment.
New research by the Education Policy Institute, in partnership with the Institute of Education, has looked at how far education in England needs to improve in order to match the top-performing nations. The results are stark.
Based on the 2016 results, the average grade in maths needs to improve by two-thirds of a GCSE grade. The average grade in English needs to improve by a fifth.
Pupils in England need to average a Grade 5 in the new GCSE scoring system – or 50 points or higher across Attainment 8 subjects. Currently, less than 40 per cent of pupils achieve this – far fewer than the 60 per cent who achieve the old measure of 5 A*- C grades including English and maths.
The number of low-performing pupils also needs to be significantly reduced if we are to compete with the world’s best.
Earlier this month, I wrote about the tail of underperformance amongst certain groups of pupils – those with SEND, black-Caribbean pupils and the most persistently disadvantaged. This new analysis highlights how far behind those low-performing pupils are compared with those in other, developed, nations.
This report is not intended to be a criticism of teachers, pupils or parents. It is intended to shed an important light on educational standards in this country so that government and policy-makers can make it better. There are two choices: we can bury our heads in the sand while England stagnates in international terms, or we can push successive governments to do better.
The thousands of pupils who will be receiving their results should rightly be congratulated not only for their achievements, but also for completing 12 years of school and the pressure that comes with taking high-stakes exams.
We’re not doing them an injustice by saying that the system needs to serve them and the generations that follow much better – we’d be wrong to stay silent.
Natalie Perera is executive director at the Education Policy Institute, and is on Twitter at @natalieperera1