GCSE figures and the English Baccalaureate
The latest detailed GCSE results, published this week, received more attention than the figures normally do. These 2010 results emphasised a different measure from previous years, and included a new, complementary measure, the English Baccalaureate. The new emphasis is a good idea. The complementary measure is a bad one.
The main measure the government uses to monitor progress is now that of 5 A*-C grades including Maths and English. This change, from the previously preferred standard of any 5 GCSEs at A*-C, is presumably to ensure that core literacy and numeracy skills are attained. This is a sensible approach, and most would surely agree that these two subjects are essential.
We should note that this measure had been improving, from 43% of pupils in 2005 to 55% in 2010. So it is not obvious that students or schools were increasingly concentrating on non-core or “easy” (whatever that might mean) subjects.
Alongside, this, the complementary ‘English baccalaureate’ measure has been introduced. The English bac comprises A*-C passes in five subject areas: English; maths; two sciences; ancient or modern history or geography; and a modern or ancient language. These subject areas have been specified by ministers. There are certainly oddities in what it implicitly values – Latin counts towards the English bac, but ICT does not, Classics is in but Art is out.
By setting a more specific target, the number of pupils achieving it will inevitably be lower. In 2010, only 16% of GCSE pupils attained the necessary grades for the English bac, compared to 55% getting 5 grades at A*-C including Maths and English. So 39% of pupils got 5 good GCSEs and attained a good standard of literacy and numeracy but did not get the baccalaureate because, for instance, they did not get a C in history. But they may well have a GCSE in ICT, or Religious Studies, neither of which would count.
Besides this more general point, some pupils have “failed” the English bac because their schools use a different exam board or different type of exam. The statistic has been pretty poorly defined, and some schools are rightly angry.
If 16% seems low, we should point out that for any of the individual subjects, the proportion of pupils getting a C or above is at least 65%. So most exams are passed to the required level, but the vast majority of pupils do not pass all five. One of the reasons the combined figure is so low is that under half of pupils study modern languages for GCSE. Many schools do not offer languages for GCSE, as they are not compulsory. So, immediately, a large proportion of children (and schools) are failing to make the grade but not because they are failing the exams.
It is surely inevitable that these schools will now start adjusting their curricula accordingly. This runs somewhat counter to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s claim that “For all schools there will be a greater degree of freedom… The whole thrust of our policy is towards a greater degree of autonomy.” In reality, the English bac offers no freedom at all. There is a world of difference between a standard of 5 GCSEs, two of which are pre defined and three of which can be whatever the pupil chooses (within reason) and a standard of 5 entirely pre defined GCSEs.
The Department for Education says the 5 A*-C including Maths and English is the main measure, but the very existence of the bac risks narrowing the range of subjects pupils take for GCSE. After all, if a pupil gets the bac, they by definition meet the 5 GCSE standard, so why do anything other than concentrate on the five core subjects? Targets change behaviour – that is why they are set.
The standard of 5 GCSEs including Maths and English at A* to C is a good one. Following progress in the last few years, it is now the norm. Five years ago, less than half of pupils attained this standard. In 2010, more than half did. While allowing schools and pupils to choose subjects this measure concentrates on what surely are the core skills of literacy and numeracy. If the government wants to expand this core, then it should only be as a result of widespread and careful consideration. It cannot be on the basis of ministerial whim and prejudice.