GCSE Special Bulletin

20th August 2020

GCSE Pass grades rise but BTEC results delayed in further results turmoil, highlighting need for exam reform

National Picture

Following a week-long crisis around A Level exam results, today’s GCSE results have seen increases in grades after the Government decided to honour Centre Assessment Grades.

The pass rate has risen from 69.9% last year to 78.8% achieving grade 4 or above. There was also an increase in the top grades with 27.6% of entries being awarded a 7 or above, a rise from 21.9% in 2019.
While this will have generally been a much more positive day for schools, Pearson announced late last night that BTECs would be delayed further as it sought to re-evaluate the results, leading to even further disruption for students and schools.

Reverting to Centre Assessment Grades

Following public pressure, as well as Schools North East’s call to revert to Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) for both A-Levels and GCSEs, the Government announced earlier this week that GCSEs would be awarded based on CAGs. This was a welcome decision, as the swiftest and most effective means of remedying the current situation and bringing England’s student’s in line with those under devolved governments in the rest of the UK.

The now notorious Ofqual algorithm had a disproportionately negative impact on large state schools, risking further inequality for disadvantaged students. Ofqual also identified that disadvantaged students have been downgraded more than their peers. Given the North East has high proportions of long term deprivation, it is likely that using the algorithm would have had a disproportionately negative impact on the region.

GCSE attainment gap

Regional data is yet to be published but it will be interesting to see if CAGs have a positive impact on performance in the North East, which has seen slow rates of improvement in recent years, resulting in the region falling behind other English regions.  The use of CAGs should also potentially narrow the attainment gap. Research by the FFT education datalab shows that schools with disadvantaged intakes tend to submit ‘more optimistic’ grades on average. On top of this, there is also a difference within schools, not just between schools. Ofqual identified ‘leniency’ in CAGs around the grade 4 boundary, and as there are ‘a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils whose results sit below a grade 4 in a typical year’, this leniency may help bring up the grades of those pupils.

Call for support around progression

With more students than expected receiving higher grades, combined with the current economic situation as a result of Covid-19, it is likely that schools and FE colleges will see an increase in demand for places.

Schools North East is calling on the government to ensure that schools which want to expand their capacity have the funding and resources to do so, to ensure there are places available for students seeking to study A Levels or BTECs. Given the geography of the North East, students in some areas will potentially suffer from a lack of access to FE provision, and this will be felt particularly in areas of disadvantage. It is therefore crucial that the Government takes regional variations and contexts into consideration when offering support to schools and colleges.

Call for inquiry

While honouring CAGs has addressed many of the immediate issues raised by the cancellation of exams, there are still other challenges that need addressing. The failure to use CAGs last week has already damaged the prospect of many students who have lost places at universities or for apprenticeships and jobs. Given the situation, we believe an inquiry is required, in order to learn lessons from what has occurred and to prevent this from happening again in the future. 

Planning for 2020/ 21

Discussions must also urgently begin around what exams will look like in 2021 to allow schools to begin preparations as early as possible in the Autumn term. With the possibility of further waves of coronavirus, and therefore of local or partial lockdowns, we can expect to see further disruption for those due to sit exams next year.

Schools urgently need to know the Government’s proposals for exams and assessments in 2021, to ensure schools can support students and staff in being adequately prepared and are recording pupil assessments appropriately. Schools need a decision on whether or not exams are being pushed back further into the Summer 2021 term.  And if exams are once again cancelled, how teacher assessments will take place in light of the disruption to normal teaching, and whether or not mock exams will have to be conducted in a standardised manner. Schools also need to see a swift resolution re the appeals system for those students still wanting to appeal their final grades.

Exam reform

The issues that have arisen this year have also highlighted major, perennial, concerns around the current system of assessment, and more generally on how education policy is made. The algorithm used by Ofqual to adjust CAGs saw disadvantaged students downgraded more than their peers. However, the unfair impact on disadvantaged students is not unique to 2020.  While progress has been made in the last 10 years on the disadvantage gap, last year saw a reversal in this trend.  It is, therefore, crucial that we now look to wider reform of the exam and assessment system, which must involve far more effective communication between Ofqual, the DfE, and Government with our schools and teaching staff, to ensure that the teaching profession informs decision making, and that teachers are adequately supported in carrying out those decisions.