GCSE and VTQ results: mind the attainment gap

Whatever the results, it is important to remember that the students do not change. It is hoped employers, colleges and universities embrace this and adapt wisely to the shifting sands. The students and their teachers did their best when studying became difficult and complicated.  Hitting them with lower grades this year, after the effects of lockdowns and learning loss, seems heartless and cold. But remember this is a construct of the government and its regulator, Ofqual. The sands may shift with the tide, but the students are the same people who will move on to succeed.

The GCSE results yesterday, alongside vocational, and technical qualifications (VTQs), succeeded in shifting the distribution of higher grades downwards as planned.  The GCSE results dominated the news since they are all released on the same day. The VTQ results are spread over different days and attracted very little attention despite over 360,000 students being involved. 

Data from the Department for Education (DfE) and on GCSEs and VTQs Levels 1 and 2  were released yesterday.  There was no surprise since the downward spread of results was expected and mirrored closely the outcome for A-levels last week, and the combined Scotland’s National 5, Higher and Advanced Highers results the week before.

While the overall results were heading downwards in a controlled manner to match those of 2019, some worrying trends emerged. It seems the old disparities remain and there is no real plan to tackle them.

Disadvantage gaps persist

The data so far provides only a hint of what is to come.  There are significant differences in attainment at both A-level and GCSE results across England. A stark north/south divide persists that has resisted any effort to counter it so far.  The obvious conclusion is that this reflects the extent of disadvantage amongst students and their families in different regions of the country. These differences are long standing and deep rooted in our society. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) with the Nuffield Foundation have analysed data from 2020 in an interactive tool that sets out the challenge lurking in the stark data.

However, for both GCSEs and A-levels, we await a fuller ‘Equalities Analysis’. Ofqual plan to release this sometime in the autumn. Qualifications Wales did so along with official statistics on 20th of October 2022 and Northern Ireland has simply posted a short ministerial statement on GCSEs to go alongside one on A-levels last week.

The omens are not good

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scotland released its ‘Equalities monitoring report 2022’ with the results.  With the advantage of having the  Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) for defined quintile areas, they observed that the attainment gap between the most and least deprived quintiles had widened for both National 5 exams and Highers/ Advanced Highers.  The National 5 examinations are the closest in equivalence to GCSEs in the rest of the UK and it was clear that for 2022 the gap between students from the most deprived SIMD quintile 1 areas and the least deprived SIMD Quintile 5 areas had widened. Figure 1 shows that the gap persists to a greater or lesser degree regardless of the assessment arrangements. The shaded areas correspond to the years when no examinations were held.

There is every reason to expect similar gaps to persist, even widen, across the rest of the UK in 2022.

Independent school results again raise suspicions.

Just as for A-levels, the fall in higher grades was greatest for independent schools.  TEFS covered this last week in ‘Exam-results 2022 and the fallout arising’ and the GCSE results reinforce the idea that something was not right about the grades awarded in 2020 and 2021. The main idea is schools that inflated their grades awarded during lockdown suffered the greatest % drop in grades when reality caught up with them after the return of examinations. 

Asking, ‘Did independent schools really “fiddle” their A-Level grades more than other schools in 2021?’ , FFT Education Datalab  takes a less strident view of the changes.  By comparing the ratio of % changes in top grades between years 2021 and 2022 for each school type, they conclude there was little difference between independent schools and the rest. They call this the “relative risk of getting an A/A* grade in 2021 compared to 2022”. This measure is intended to give an “idea of how many times more likely students were to receive an A/A* grade in 2022 than 2021”. To be fair, the highly experienced FFT Education Datalab acknowledges that both measures must be used. However, this doesn’t hold water in assessing if grade inflation was happening more in independent schools. Instead, it obscures the likelihood that independent schools are already well ahead of the game to start with.  TEFS explored this in more detail last year in three posts combined in ‘Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system’? Season three, Episode one’.  Smaller classes, parental pressure and greater expectations all force grades to higher levels, backed by greater resources at home and at school.  Add grade inflation, even the possibility of cheating, and most state schools cannot match the outcome.  A more extensive investigation over several years will be needed to tease out the relative impact of advantages enjoyed. The pandemic has triggered this debate.

Calibrating exam results over the years

One way to assess changes over the years is to calibrate results using a separate standard test. This has been done since 2017 for Mathematics and English in the  ‘National Reference Test (NRT)”. The 2021 and 2022 tests were  carried out for Ofqual by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).  The NRT has been conducted annually across schools and used by Ofqual to “support the awarding of GCSEs in England”. The tests on students aged 15 to 16 from February to March, cover English and Mathematics and are used to calibrate standards for GCSEs.  It emerged as a valuable way to gauge learning loss in 2021.  However, it could also be a means to determine if students in independent schools really had ‘improved’ more than other schools as recent results suggest.  But this will not be possible, since independent schools are not included, only state schools (See TEFS 12th September 2021 ‘Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system’? UPDATE: National Reference Test a ‘scandal’). Such tests should be used as part of a wider investigation.

Added Sunday 28th August 2022

Today the Observer declared that, ‘Private schools in England accused of ‘gaming the system’ on lockdown exam results’.  They report in stark terms what happened this year for both GCSEs and A-levels. The chair of the Commons Education Committee and Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, is characteristically blunt with, “These differences show how vital exams are. The decision to try to eliminate grade inflation and protect the currency of these qualifications is the right one. We need to go back to the integrity of 2019 grade profiles. It seems the independent sector milked the school-assessed grade system for all it was worth. That is why Ofqual’s plan to reign in grade inflation is the right one.”

Lockdowns and learning loss

There is no doubt that those taking GCSEs, VTQs and National Highers were profoundly affected by the loss of learning during school closures.  It is also clear that those from families with fewer advantages were hit hardest.  Students from better off families could cope better and compensate. In February of this year, the EPI and Nuffield Foundation reported in detail on the gap in attainment at schools across England in ‘Disadvantage gaps in England 2022’.  They looked at data up to 2020 taking in the first period of lockdowns. They observed that “There has been a marked increase in persistent poverty among disadvantaged pupils in recent years”.  This is reflected in an ongoing gap in grades awarded. Although the “The measured 16-19 disadvantage grade gap widened in 2020” it emerged that, “there was a slight narrowing of the measured GCSE grade gap in 2020 for disadvantaged pupils”.  This was good news for those affected and the effect was considered likely to have continued into 2021.  However, when they revisit the data for 2022, it is likely we will see a retrenchment and slipping back to the old biases and gaps.

No excuse

The governments in each UK jurisdiction cannot, and must not, ignore these gaps anymore.  The events since 2019 have unearthed a major rift in our society, that is bigger than expected. There is no doubt that rapidly rising inflations and huge cost burdens on families will exacerbate existing inequalities.  The impact of COVID-19 on schools and students is well understood.  Back in March 2021 the Commons Education Committee looked closely at ‘The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services’. Becky Francis, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), recommended “a focus on teacher quality as the key driver” stating that “The evidence is very clear that high-quality teaching will make the biggest difference, and we know that is particularly important for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds”. Certainly this is correct, and the advantages offered at independent schools tend to reinforce this point. But with home life becoming increasingly fractured for many through few resources, time will tell if this will be insufficient. Indeed, an EEF report from 2018,  ‘Closing the attainment gap – new EEF report reveals stark challenge’, predicted little progress would be made in the following five years. The pandemic may have reversed any improvement possible by concentrating on schools. Research by the EEF reported in 2021 concluded that  “Disadvantaged pupils have fallen further behind in maths as a result of the pandemic”.

Missing an opportunity and failure to act

The authors of an Institute of Fiscal Studies report earlier this month, ‘Lack of progress on closing educational inequalities disadvantaging millions throughout life’, did not pull their punches. They highlighted fundamental social inequalities across the whole spectrum of disadvantage to advantage, and stated the blindingly obvious, “Inequalities by family background emerge well before school starts”. But the data backing this up is more shocking.  On examinations, they conclude, “just 40% of disadvantaged pupils go on to earn good GCSEs in English and maths versus 60% of the better-off students”.  This fact is so ingrained in our expectations that we seem to accept that, “Ten years after GCSEs, over 70% of those who went to private school have graduated from university compared with just under half of those from the richest fifth of families at state schools and fewer than 20% of those from the poorest fifth of families”. They might also add that those who attended private schools mostly entered the so called ‘elite’ higher tariff universities in what is rapidly becoming a two-tier system.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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