Yesterday’s GCSE results marked a big change in English education. Young people who took their exams this year will already know that their English and mathematics results were grades 9-1, not A*- C. Other important subjects, such as science, history and geography, will follow this new system from next year.
This change was required because the exams themselves have changed. Gone are the days of 40 per cent of English Language GCSE being based on teacher-supervised “controlled assessment”, done in class and—evidence suggests—habitually marked too generously. In maths, trigonometry is now something everyone needs to know, not just the most able students.
All of this came about because, when the coalition government came to power seven years ago, they examined international evidence that suggested that standards of education in England were not all they should be. Although not the only reason for this, an important part of the explanation was that GCSEs had been turned into a modular mush, where students could sit the whole in bite-sized chunks throughout their GCSE years, in spring as well as summer. This reduced the need for students to comprehend the whole subject and remember key information over the long term. It also took up a huge amount of teacher and student time with exam preparation, taking time away from the actual business of teaching and learning new material.
The new exams swept away this system: all exams now take place at the end of the course, in the summer, and only work done in the exam hall counts towards the final mark. Added to new, more rigorous content, there was a lot for young people to cope with.
The results suggest that system has managed to change-over to the new exams well. Broadly the same number of young people, 68 per cent, achieved the new “standard pass” 4-grade as previously got the old passing C-grade. Standards have not fallen dramatically in response to the new exams. Just under 50 per cent of students achieved the new Grade 5, what the government calls a “strong pass”. Ensuring more young people move from a 4 to a 5 in future years is a key task of the school system.
Also of interest is the achievement of students at the top end. The number of students achieving above Grade 7 is roughly the same as used to achieve the old A*/A grade. Again, this is good news for standards, but one of the major reasons for pursuing this change was to provide universities and employers with a clearer idea of who the highest achievers are. The new Grade 9 was made extremely difficult to get, but still—and this is an extremely impressive achievement by these young people—just over 2000 young people managed to get a Grade 9 in English language, English literature and mathematics. This is providing greater differentiation amongst the most able, as this is lower than the 6500 students who achieved straight A*s in their core subjects last year.
Perhaps most strikingly of all in these results is not the changes themselves but what they tell us about another key government educational initiative, free schools. These schools, controlled not by local government but by independent education charities or teacher and parent groups, were introduced following the 2010 election. Many were established in areas of significant economic disadvantage, where schools had struggled to help young people achieve anywhere near their potential. A number of these schools received their first results today, and compared to the national average, they are seriously impressive.
Reach Academy Feltham saw 98 per cent of its students achieve above a Grade 4 in English, 98 per cent achieve those grades in maths; 80 per cent of students achieved Grade 4 in both. Greenwich Free School had 81 per cent of its students achieve Grade 4 in English and Maths; 65 per cent achieved a Grade 5 or above in both. Free schools who had great results last year, like West London Free school, maintained the trend this year, with 80 per cent achieving Grade 4 or above in English and maths.
The message is clear that this reform to qualifications is working. There is much that needs to be done to ensure that all students are able to access the high levels of teacher and support which have enabled some of the most impressive achievements today, but with such outstanding free schools to act as models, England’s school system is in good health.
John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at the think-tank Policy Exchange, before which he was a state-school history teacher for ten years.