GCSE results are out: carpe diem  

The words in the image resonate from twenty years ago. They are by the prolific and controversial talent, Marshall Mathers. Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel prize for literature recipient praised his work with,

“He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation”.

A nihilistic sense of anger and despair, mixed with hope, permeates Mathers’s work. It grew from the poverty of a tough and disadvantaged childhood.  The current generation will no doubt produce similar sentiments and talent in time as the implications of a career defining assessment at age sixteen hit home.

The Level 2 examination results emerged today to a cohort of sixteen-year-olds who may be relieved and optimistic or disappointed and even angry. On Wednesday, TEFS looked ahead with, ‘GCSE results tomorrow: decision day with life-changing consequences’. The results today confirm what was expected. GCSEs dominate the assessment landscape, but we must also remember those already committed to a technical career and who also received their Level 2 Vocational and Technical (VTQ) results today. With a median age of seventeen, almost 100% of the 11,650 passed with 17% awarded a distinction.

The situation is a very different one for the GCSE recipients.

Of the 643,095 students who received their GCSE results, 32.2% fell below the crucial grade C/4 threshold, the minimum for access to A-level studies.  This is seen as the de facto ‘pass’ grade by most students. Figure 1 shows the latest release of GCSE data from Ofqual Analytics on an inverted scale to emphasise the proportion dropping into the red failure zone. This represents 207,337 students who must reassess their futures. The levels have largely reverted to the pattern before the pandemic. It is clear that the grading is deliberately designed to fail around 30% of the students from the outset.

Conversely, those in the green zone will opt for the challenge of A-levels along with some peers in the amber zone. But they will find that around 25% (24.6% this year) drop into D/E grades at A-level and effectively also fail. This represents risk for some students and the promise of a large debt for university might deter them at this point. Never fear, the government is of course selling the idea of T-levels to those in the amber and red zones promising a bright future in technical training. The more flexible BTECs, that could be taken alongside some A-levels, are being defunded. However, for red zone students, there a sting in the tail.

The sting in the tail.

Those students falling below grades C/4 in Mathematics and English will have to study more and attempt resit examinations if they are to proceed. This supposes they will be able to achieve what is required.  The Mirror has stepped in to offer some sample GCSE questions to whet the appetite. For a retired microbial biochemistry professor, they seem relatively straight forward. But back at age sixteen, as a very nervous examination-fearing student, they might have taken a little time to work out.  It would be interesting to see how our leaders do with them. Perhaps that was the aim.

Literacy and numeracy.

It appears that most populations around the world have individuals who struggle in one way or another. However, the  World Economic Forum  and OECD observed that England has some of the worst illiteracy (over 20%) and innumeracy (nearly 30%) levels of the developed nations.  It should seem obvious that addressing this at an early stage of education would be the best tactic. But the government seems to favour bludgeoning older students with the threat of further failures if they don’t succeed. Progress at T-level requires these passes, and we watch keenly to see if this works.

Different schools, different results.

The media today concentrated on the differential between different areas of England and a north/south divide persisting.  However, the difference between types of school is far more significant and may also contribute to the regional differences.

As for A-levels, there is a big divide along the lines of levels of advantage and disadvantage (see TEFS 18th August 2023 ‘Exam results 2023: the lion the dinosaur and the guinea pig’) as evidenced in the data on types of school attended.

Figure 2. shows the updated results  for the highest grades (7/A and above) where selective secondary (grammar) schools and independent schools dominate.  The free schools closely match state comprehensive schools and this raises questions about their cost vs added worth.  Academies fare about the same (not shown).  Those achieving these grades are likely to go onto university and feed the existing proportion of advantage/disadvantage that prevails even more.

Of even more significance is the proportion of students achieving grades above 4/C shown in Figure 3. Those below this point see it as a fail.  The difference is stark and reveals that free schools and state comprehensive schools reach similar outcomes. Academies are about the same (not shown).

This shows that selection on the basis of ability, attainment, and means to pay has an effect, but not as great as seen in the A-levels results. This is because most sixth forms are selective based upon GCSE results. The result is a wide social divide from the outset that becomes further entrenched as students pass through the increasingly narrower gates in the education system.

We now await the equality analysis from OFQUAL this year, but are not holding our breath.

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

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