As someone who was a Head of Department when GCSE was first introduced I was really interested to read Cath Jadhav’s recent ‘mythbusting  blog’. Because the blog led me to question my own memories of that exciting period I decided to do some research.

The first ‘myth’ the blog deals with is “GCSEs used to be criterion referenced.”

We could argue about semantics but I am not sure that calling this a myth is entirely accurate. I fully understand what Ofqual says in that requiring every candidate to fully meet every single grade criterion would be setting the bar very high indeed.  Although an element of professional judgement is required this is what a BBC report from that time stated:

Under the old O Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate’s performance relatively against those of competing candidates.

The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill.

The then Secretary of State Sir Keith Joseph is quoted in the same article as saying:

“It (GCSE) will be more intelligible to users………also more intelligible and therefore more useful for employers.

When GCSEs were first introduced this represented a massive step change for teachers. For the first time we had explicit descriptions of the knowledge and skills we needed to teach. We knew that, if they could demonstrate their mastery of these in accordance with the grade criteria that they would be awarded that grade.


So whilst I broadly agree with the argument in the blog that GCSE’s are a ‘best fit’ qualification and that they are not fully criterion referenced this feels a long way away from what we currently have. I doubt whether Sir Keith’s comment about employers and users would apply to the new GCSEs. I also worry about the apparent disconnect described in the Ofqual blog between the grade descriptors and grades awarded. Doesn’t that call into question their value and indeed the claim that these new GCSEs are more rigorous that previous ones?

The second myth is “My school can’t improve because of Ofqual’s approach.”

Well of course schools can improve. Judging by the classroom practice I am seeing in the schools I visit I suspect that many are doing so much more than any published results show. However, I am not sure that this is actually the ‘myth’ in existence.  What I do know concerns people is that the system as a whole cannot be seen to improve if broadly the same proportion of students are achieving each grade each year due to the statistical process known as ‘comparable outcomes’. I accept that awarding bodies can make a case for varying their results but as Ofsted has recently stated ‘none of us yet know what a new grade will look like in terms of pupils’ work’. In the 1980s and 90s we certainly did know and could therefore prepare students confidently for these examinations. That confidence has been seriously undermined at the moment giving teachers immense cause for concern.

The third myth “There is a cap on the number of students that can be awarded each grade.”is therefore not all that far from the truth. True there is some flexibility in that cap but it is a fairly strong guide. The proportion of grades is based on the prior attainment of the cohort but the problem with this is that nobody knows whether those Key Stage Two assessments will be reliable predictors of performance especially as they change from year to year. Will assessments in English and Maths tell us reliably how well we can expect a student to perform five years later in History or Modern Languages? And what will carry more weight – the grade descriptors or the prior attainment matrix? How will be compare two candidates for a job who attained the same grades in different yers?

As I said in a previous blog I fear that GCSE is currently a very sick patient.  There is a pressing need for some honest communication with the public about what these examinations do and do not mean. If we are to have trusted and meaningful qualifications for 16 year olds surely we need to know what each grade means in terms of pupils’ learning?

I am pleased that Ofqual is inviting discussion about these issues. It has an incredibly difficult job to do working within the constraints of government policies which is did not design.  What we now need is an informed and professional debate about the best way forward for the young people we serve.

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