What are we trying to achieve with our exam system?

The provisional performance tables show us that our exam system is failing 190,000 pupils, says Geoff Barton

Provisional GCSE performance tables tell us that our exam system is failing 190,000 pupils, says Geoff Barton

A question: what is it exactly that we are trying to achieve in our exam system

I raise this issue now because today we have seen the publication of the provisional school performance tables, and they contain some worrying statistics.

The percentage of pupils who did not achieve at least a grade 4 "standard pass" in GCSE English and maths was 35.6 per cent. Pause for a second at that figure, and consider its devastating significance. 

More than a third of the half a million state-school pupils finishing key stage 4 this year fell short of achieving qualifications that are widely seen as an important passport for onward progression. That percentage equates to more than 190,000 pupils.

GCSEs: The forgotten third

And last year this percentage was strikingly similar. It was 35.8 per cent. The fact that these figures are so close gives you a clue about what is going on. 

Because the proportion of students who fall below this bar is no accident. Our system is deliberately designed in this way by the use of the mechanism of comparable outcomes, which decides the distribution of grades largely on the basis of how similar cohorts have performed in the past. 

So, this rate of attrition – this “forgotten third”, as we have called them – is baked into the system, year in and year out. 

Which brings me back to the question that I posed at the outset of this article. What are we trying to achieve in our exam system?

Demoralised and deflated

It surely cannot be right or sensible that it is designed in a way that ensures so many young people finish 12 years of schooling demoralised and deflated, with their opportunities for future study and careers already constrained. Is it really necessary that a third should fail so that two-thirds succeed?

And this is not the end of the story. The statistics also contain another surreal twist of the knife. Because the government, in its wisdom, randomly decided to raise the bar, so that grade 5 is described as a "strong pass"

The proportion of young people who do not attain this benchmark in GCSE English and maths is, naturally enough, much higher. This year 57 per cent fell short of doing so. That equates to more than 300,000 pupils. 

How does it make students who have attained the magic grade 4 feel, to be told that this is still not quite good enough? It is “standard”, rather than “strong”. 

Let’s remember that these students will often have worked every bit as hard as those in the glittering stratosphere of grade 8s and 9s. Many will have moved heaven and earth to get over the dividing line between a grade 3 and a grade 4. The reward is to be told that you are “standard”.

The justification for raising the bar by describing a grade 5 as a strong pass is that old chestnut about raising standards. If you arbitrarily ask more of pupils and schools, they will somehow respond by magically doing better. 

Enshrining large-scale failure

Even if it was possible to snap your fingers and make this happen, the absurdity is that it cannot happen, because of the mechanism that ensures that the distribution of grades is similar from one year to the next.

We are effectively raising the bar against a system that is more or less set in stone, making it an absolute certainty that more young people will fall below this bar.

Which brings me once again to the question I asked at the outset. What is it that we are trying to achieve by our exam system?

Because surely the point of an exam system should be to demonstrate that students have the knowledge and skills that are required, at different levels, for the courses and careers that they would like to pursue in their lives. And surely it is not necessary to enshrine a large-scale sense of failure in the system to achieve this end. Indeed, it is arguably counterproductive to do so.

I have written about this before, but I make no apologies for doing so again. There are few issues in education as troubling as the annual ritual of rubbing the noses of our students in disappointment. We have to find a better way than this.

And the Association of School and College Leaders has done exactly that, by setting up a commission of inquiry into the forgotten third, which has made a series of recommendations to improve the prospects of students who are currently failed by the exam system. Its headline recommendation is the replacement of GCSE English language with a new Passport in English, which would be taken at the point of readiness between the ages of 15 and 19. A companion Passport in Maths could also be developed. 

These qualifications would be built on the principle of showing what students can do, rather than what they cannot do. They would give every pupil the dignity of a qualification of which they could be proud. Last week, ASCL council, our policy-making body, adopted the recommendations of the forgotten-third commission in full. You can read more here.

Real human beings

Today’s statistics show us once again why this is needed. We have to think in a different way about what it is we want our exam system to achieve for our students, rather than rigidly sticking to the current system because that is what we have always done. 

Behind every percentage point in those statistics are real human beings – young people whose experience of education has been a bruising collision with the remorseless nature of our exam system. 

We do not defend standards by writing off so many young people. We defend standards through the power of education to motivate and inspire a love of knowledge. 

And I’m proud to say, as the leader of a trade union and professional association, that we should set a higher expectation of what can be achieved by our young people. But also to say that we have to start thinking differently about what our exam system is for.

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

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