GCSE results tomorrow: decision day with life-changing consequences

The GSCE results emerge tomorrow to a very nervous cohort of sixteen-year-old students. They have endured a difficult time with their education interrupted by lockdowns and sometimes patchy online learning. The examinations earlier this summer came as a big shock and finally they get to see how they did. They are expecting a similar grade deflation. The results will not attract as much media attention as A-levels did last week but they are now emerging as the main crunch decision point in a student’s career. The consequences will be life changing as they are now forced to decide between A-levels or a technical route to a job in two years. This is tough for a sixteen-year-old. But they may also find that the decision to allow them to proceed with A-levels will be taken out of their hands as more selection is exerted.

The Level 3 exam results, including A-levels, BTECs and T-levels, were posted last week with the much-anticipated deflation of grades back to pre-pandemic 2019 levels.  This led to many being disappointed as they fell well short of their predicted grades. The scramble for places through clearing was greater than ever but seems to have settled down.  TEFS reported with, ‘Exam results 2023: the lion the dinosaur and the guinea pig’ exploring the rise of T-levels and the pressure on universities. But the focus would be better concentrating on what decisions students will make at sixteen. This is becoming the big binary decision day as students must decide between exclusive an academic or technical route.  Other flexible options are being phased out. It’s a tough choice for one so young and we pray they are getting sound advice.

What may come?

Some observers are predicting that next year will not be as bad and the current batch of seventeen-year-old students might apply to university with a little more confidence. Certainly, the numbers who deferred their place after the pandemic will have filtered through and the examinations may be less of a shock next year.  Predicted grades will also settle down and not raise as many false hopes.  But reports that many higher tariff universities are seeking to fill places with even more high fee-paying international students will dampen the spirits somewhat. In the meantime, the real concern falls to the current sixteen-year-olds getting their results tomorrow. They are expecting a similar deflation of grades and will be acutely aware that they will be expected to make a big decision about what their future might hold.  They will be pointed toward T-levels as an alternative to A-levels if they do not do well. This is simply because many BTECs are having their funding removed. These were a flexible alternative and they allowed students to aim for university later. T-levels will not offer the same flexibility.  The results tomorrow have acquired a massive significance.

More ‘social engineering’.

Meanwhile the government is ploughing on with its ‘social engineering’ policies that will deter many students from university, mostly form less well-off backgrounds. The transition to exclusive T-levels from flexible BTECs is only one piece of the jigsaw that is beginning to reveal a very worrying image. Instead of building a ‘New Jerusalem’ the image looks like a ‘New Metropolis’. It’s scary. In constructing this new society, the pieces fit well and each plays a part the new image. One of these is the emergence of ‘Academies’ and ‘Free Schools’. They conform to the underlying belief that only private enterprise can deliver what is needed. The latest government announcement this week that there are to be more such schools in England reinforces the belief that they will improve standards overall. Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan backs their plan with,

“These new schools build on this government’s work to drive up school standards since 2010, with 88% of schools now rated good or outstanding”.

Three of these schools will be run by the high performing Star Academies and Eton College. What is the evidence they produce better results. The government is correct in observing,

“Free schools outperformed other types of non-selective state schools in England in last week’s A level results. Around 35% of A levels taken by pupils in free schools achieved a grade A or A* compared to 22% studied by pupils in local authority schools”.

The latest data release from Ofqual – Analytics  confirms this as shown in Figure 1.  

It seems Free Schools are likely to improve the outcomes for students almost to the level of selective and independent schools. Academies do less well and are closer to comprehensive school outcomes. So far so good, but there is a ‘fly in the ointment’ of this solution. The GCSE results tell a different story.

The jury is out on performance at GCSE level up to 2022. We wait to see if the same pattern emerges tomorrow for the 2023 results. Figure 2 shows the comparison of different types of school at this level. Free Schools fare about the same as comprehensive schools and Academies are similar.

Occam’s razor.

Reduced to its simplest definition it proposes that ‘The simplest explanation is usually the best one’. This serves scientists well in explaining what appears highly complex in nature. Its use might also provide a clue to the differential in outcomes between GCSE and A-level in the types of school.  The simplest explanation is that selection is being used to take students into sixth forms in many cases.

As an aside, the outcome for A-levels in Northern Ireland has been consistently higher than the rest of the UK (Belfast Telegraph last year ‘Northern Ireland A-level students achieve best results in the UK with 99.1% pass rate’) and this year was no different.  While some in Northern Ireland are convinced they are inherently better, the more obvious explanation is the prevalence of strict selection for entry into sixth forms and the continued use of selection by the transfer test or 11+ (see TEFS 26th March 2021 ‘Testing times for Northern Ireland academic selection’).  Thus, excluding candidates at an early stage produces a mirage of excellence whilst letting down too many students.

Whilst free schools are not initially selective schools, looking at the entry to sixth forms shows they are indeed highly selective. They are effectively hiving off the better pupils (as noted by Schools Week today in ‘Elite’ sixth forms: Will they work?’) from other schools to construct a similar mirage of excellence.  

Levelling up and the ghost of Cummings.

The influence of Dominic Cummings contaminated the core of the government’s philosophy and persists today.  After all, it is what most of them wanted to hear. The result is a firm belief that inherent ability drives success and selection is needed to focus resources on those deemed worthy.

Back in February 2019 Dominic Cummings posted the blog ‘Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world’. He concluded that a person’s genetic makeup is the main driver of success, and most interventions would not work, such as providing disadvantaged children with books.

“Kids who can read well come from homes with lots of books so let’s give families with kids struggling to read more books” was replaced with the “truth”, “Children and parents share genes that make them good at and enjoy reading, so causation is operating completely differently to the assumptions”.

(See also TEFS 10th January 2020 ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’).

It’s not a measure of ‘ability’ but a measure of ‘suitability’.

Levelling up then morphs from providing every child the with same opportunity to imposing selective education for the ‘elite’ and technical training for the rest who are destined to serve the elite. It inevitably means the less well off. This problem arises when selection is based on attainment and not ability. It is a social selection and effectively puts more emphasis on the quality of teaching, resources and home environment.

Levelling up is simply defined in terms of economic development across the country with a technical workforce in place to enrich the elite. Surely we must do better than this.

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

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