A Few Comments on Last Week’s GCSE Results

August 29, 2013

I wrote so much last year about the GCSE results and the English farrago, the most controversial parts of which were vindicated by subsequent events, that people had been asking me in the weeks leading up to this year’s results whether anything interesting was going to happen. The answer, of course, was “no”. The fuss last year relied on the element of surprise. Too many schools failed to realise that, in the absence of grade inflation, their results were as likely to go down as up and that manipulating results around the borderline was unlikely to work as well as it had in the past. This year most knew this and had got their excuses in first. Ofqual had also made an effort to lower expectations thereby ensuring that what actually happened was, if anything, better than expected.

To begin with, much of the comment in the media suggested results had gone down, which is true if you look at the proportion of GCSEs passed at grade C or above. It gradually emerged that when you looked at year 11 results only, grade Cs had gone up slightly in English and maths and that more students had been entered for harder exams. When results are finally collated it seems likely that the number of students with A*-C in 5 subjects including English and maths will have gone up. Also, given the increase in entries for Ebacc subjects, it is likely (but not inevitable, as science results were down significantly) that the number of students achieving the Ebacc will have gone up. Overall, it was a lot less scary than expected.

What controversy there has been this year has been over the growth in early entry, i.e. students taking their exams early and resitting until they get their target grade. Remarkably, this has been seized upon even by those who have seemed most hostile to GCSE reform. There are two main causes:

1) Modularisation. The changes in GCSEs in the last few years have encouraged early entry. Partly, it’s that the modular exams themselves have encouraged it. Although there were limits on how many times you could retake modules before cashing in your GCSE, there were in some cases rules that meant those students who had sat their terminal exam early, could resit their GCSE with some of the modules from the first time they took it still counting. If students had good results in their earlier modules, they could resit their terminal module as many times as they liked. Other rules about meant that, instead of having a particular terminal exam, any set of exams in which students sat 40% of their GCSE could count as a terminal exam (and there would also be a chance to take a linear GCSE then). This meant that there were simply more sittings in a year where students could take a GCSE. I know of one school where students were entered for their maths GCSE 4 times in year 11 alone (although this did involve making use of the slightly different exam time table of the Welsh exam board WJEC). The link between modular exams and early entry has been utterly missed by some commentators who have condemned the efforts to end modularisation at the same time as condemning early entry. Fortunately, modules are on their way out, and while this won’t end early entry, it is going to curtail the insane levels we have seen this year but strangely enough, nobody seems to want to give the government or Ofqual any credit for this.

2) The end to grade inflation. It is, however, true that the measures to stop grade inflation will also have encouraged early entry. When exams were getting easier in each sitting it would have made sense to concentrate one’s efforts on the later sittings. When grade inflation ended that ceased to be the case.  Because of this, some have blamed the rise in early entries on Ofqual and the government. I think this is fair enough, however, anyone who uses this argument to attribute blame needs to be entirely clear that, for their argument to make sense, they must be explicitly supporting exams being made easier every time. As ever with the issue of grade inflation, those who implicitly support it, seem very reluctant to spell that out, they simply oppose every attempt to stop it and complain about the consequences of stopping it.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. To be fair OA, I am a current teacher and I HAVE given the powers that be, praise for removing modular exams.

    I have been very vocal about it and the majority of my colleagues have agreed with me on the issue.

    They were a silly waste of time and money- pointless admin and excessive testing on what is after all a pretty straightward 16yo qualification.

    Good riddance.

    I would now like to see the ‘one board per subject’ come to fruition that Gove spoke about before… lets curb that gravy train shall we?

    (I always though it was daft that such a small island had so many boards for the same qualification)

    • I would agree about limiting boards except that I have so often been enormously relieved to be able to move away from a board whose course/exam is poor. The change I have spoken of previously from AQA to IGCSE was the single best decision I have made as a head of department.
      Often a change of chief examiner leads to a rise in random questions or mark schemes with unpredicatable criteria. Just one example, I once marked an external exam in which two of the eight topic options had questions that the poor teachers could never have guessed they needed to cover material for, in the detail required. The kids from every single school doing those topics went down like troops at the Somme, it was carnage. One unfortuante school had chosen to prepare their kids for both the bad topics and their results must have been down by over a grade on average because of that one paper. In a subject like history there are always challenges making all topics of comparable difficulty but a different chief examiner would have done much better. Boards with successful courses do gradually get lots of transfer to them and that isn’t just because they are easier to game or less challenging. It is much more satisfying teachingy a course that hangs together and with a very reliable exam. Finally, A level marking has become such an issue in recent years that we need to at least have the option of voting with our feet if one board regularly causes mayhem with the rank order etc.

      • But you have kinda made an argument in support of single boards.

        If there IS a cock up all the kids in the uk cohort suffer the same cock up. Rather than the current situation where kids who took the bad board might have an advantage over peers with another poor board.

        Plus in my experience a large amount of ‘transfer’ IS about boosting grades- though yes, I have known some HoDs do it because of a more enjoyable or convenient course.

        The current system of multiple boards STILL encourages a degree of grade inflation and ‘populism’, not to mention ‘cartel’ profiteering. I think its a scam worth busting.

        • Thanks for your reply. First to make clear that my point is that not all kids in the cohort do suffer the same cock up. Many subjects have a range of options on each paper and History, by it’s nature, has a very wide range. The number of times a student has come to me after a facing a ‘dodgy’ question and suggested it will all be OK as everyone else will have had problems, but no they won’t. In Politics students are generally prepared for all the options but this still leads to problems. Our chief examiner always used to tell students at revision conferences that they should not choose harder questions assuming they would be more easily rewarded. His message was clear, choose the easiest questions as you won’t be marked down just because others find them easier too. I marked A Level Politics for years and I can confirm that variability betweent he quality/difficulty of questions causes real disparities in results. As I said to a certain extent this is unavoidable but some chief examiners do a much better job than others.
          I also think that in your keeness to see a solution to some problems by going to one board a subject you undestimate the significance of other issues that having options helps to solve. I teach in a 13 plus school. In schools such as mine it is A Levels that are the real focus. The quality of A Level courses and marking is crucial to providing students with a good learning experience and ensuring they get onto the university courses they deserve. HMC published this very illuminating document on the current quality of marking and it’s findings entirely mirror the experiences of our school and many like it. http://www.hmc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/HMC-Report-on-English-Exams-9-12-v-13.pdf
          Perhaps for some subjects there is not the same variability of quality between courses but I cannot agree to a situation where shoddy courses are more likely just because everyone will equally suffer. Those courses and exams have a serious impact on the quality of the education and reliability pf the results for students.

          • Well then surely the aim should be too have one board and ensure the exam structure, choice of questions and marking and moderation are of good quality, rather than ‘shoddy’.

            • The same argument could be made to end grade inflation. Curb the ‘gravy train’ through better management of the boards. Unfortunately examining is a much more human process than it appears from the outside.

            • But so many boards makes it harder to ‘regulate’ to ensure quality and to minimise ‘human’ error.

              And the very existence of competing boards encourages ‘competition’ and ‘poaching’ which in turn encourages grade inflation and lack of rigour.

  3. Hi,
    I have just found your blog and I think its great. I am slowly reading through it. I was just wondering what subject do you teach?

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