If I may be excused a moment of being a grumpy old man, at least when I did ‘O’ levels, we knew what they meant. The top X% got an A (or Grade 1), the next Y% a B and so on. The approach was strictly hierarchical, the exam simply telling you where you stood in the nation compared to all others who sat the exam.
Among many problems with this approach was that results always remained the same and there was no measure of improvement. Politicians wanted to be able to show that they had improved education, and so Margaret Thatcher changed the system to an exam which marked a threshold skill; it measured a proficiency and anyone or indeed everyone should be capable of reaching that level. And so we entered a period of twenty-odd years where education did indeed improve – every single year, as measured by the new GCSE exams. That era came to an end with the ‘hair shirt’ policies of Michael Gove, and for the first time the government’s objective was to see success rates fall. This year’s collapsing success rates for GCSE, particularly in English, once again shows how successful this government policies have been.
Actually, the main reason for the fall in the numbers gaining A*-C is the direct result of another government policy: that those who leave school at 16 without gaining an A*-C in English and/or maths have to retake GCSE as a condition of funding for further education. The inevitable consequence has been a) a massive increase in the number of candidates entering English and maths GCSE; b) this increase is made up of those who have already ‘failed’; c) most of this group do not want to be doing the qualification. In fact a creditable 30% of this cohort gained grades C or above in maths though only 27% for English. Hence the fall in overall pass rates (See Datalab for more detail).
What has been the effect of this policy? First, that FE Colleges have had to reposition themselves from being vocationally led organisations with a close understanding of local employment conditions into hothouse English and maths centres. Second, that many young people who could have gained a relevant and employer-supported English or maths qualification, Functional English or Functional maths, have simply been forced to fail again, reinforcing their own perceptions that they ‘can’t do’ English or maths. And third, that many of this group will have to do it all again next year! The learners are in despair, the teachers are in despair, the colleges are in despair. But since this was an entirely predictable result, we must assume the government, and its Department for Education Ministers, are delighted with how this has turned out.
The only people smiling are young apprentices who have so far avoided having to do GCSE re-takes and who do take Functional Skills as the English/maths component of their vocational studies, very successfully.
While there is no doubt that the FE sector could do better at both promoting and delivering GCSEs in general, and English and maths in particular, (we produced resources to help the sector do just this last year via the Education and Training Foundation) forcing young people to keep retaking GCSE does not seem a sensible way of rectifying the situation.
While those who wish to go forward into scientific or more academic programmes will need to try and tackle their difficulties with these subjects and find a way of gaining their Grade C, for most in colleges Functional English or maths is not only more achievable, but, given their functional basis, far more relevant for their continued study. Work from the Education and Training Foundation has shown that employers understand and value functional skills. Taken together the result of current Government policy is that many young people have again learned that they are no good at English and maths and many colleges will feel they have to focus even more on this area at the expense of their traditional work-place focus.
For the layman simply reading the headlines, the impression will be reinforced that GCSEs are not a consistent and trusted assessment, but something that varies year to year according to Government whim. At least when we picked up our old-fashioned ‘O’ levels results we knew exactly what they meant; those who succeed today are much less sure quite what they have achieved.
Brian Creese is Co-director, Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice sector