All the teenagers collecting their GCSE results this year have overcome significant difficulties. Their secondary school education has been thrown into upheaval by COVID-19: they have faced cancelled classes, have had to learn from home, have dealt with the social isolation and uncertainty of spending a significant part of their childhood in a pandemic.
But in England, these students have been marked to match a cohort of students who faced none of these challenges. Like A-level grades, GCSE results in England will see grade deflation: after higher grades were awarded during the pandemic, marks in 2023 will be brought down to be more in line with those given in 2019.
This approach treats the 2020 and 2021 results as though they are somehow less valid. But the teacher assessment used to grade GCSEs in those years allows pupils’ results to be based on their work across the school year, rather than in three hours of exams. I have argued that we should preserve this more equitable, inclusive and thorough way of assessing students.
Some teenagers will be celebrating as the 2023 results are handed out and their achievements should be lauded. Others will not be so happy.
The grade-deflated A-level results already handed out this year show that the achievement gap between the wealthier south of England and the poorer north-east has continued to increase.
Unfortunately, it is likely that the lower GCSE grades awarded as a result of grade deflation will be disproportionately handed out to teenagers from poorer backgrounds, who may have lacked the resources to catch up as quickly as their wealthier peers.
This will continue a pattern that sees GCSEs perpetuate inequality. Success is directly linked to parental socio-economic status. Three decades after their introduction, working-class students continue to gain fewer high-graded GCSEs. Similarly, children in social care are far more likely to fail crucial subjects such as English and maths.
This is the opposite of what GCSEs were intended to achieve. They were launched in 1986 as a single qualification for all at the end of compulsory schooling. Before GCSEs, there were a range of different qualifications at 16, and an advantage for more affluent students with clear professional and university ambitions.
The failure of GCSEs
GCSEs were meant to provide a robust and respected qualification for all students, despite their different interests and aspirations. They included coursework and exams, and were meant to be inclusive, promote greater social justice and break down years of educational stratification.
But instead of fulfilling their promise of greater opportunities, GCSEs have become part of an entrenched educational system that rations future success for young people.
In 2013, then education secretary Michael Gove introduced the first in a series of reforms that would reverse the initial GCSE vision of a qualification reflecting broader forms of learning and achievement. Gove removed coursework assessment and brought back the single, high-stakes exam, and justified such changes as a response to perceived falling standards.
When GCSEs were introduced they were also intended to be marked on a criterion-based system. This means that students should be assessed against clear marking criteria, and not against one another. Assessing students in relation to one another, in other words ranking, is known as norm-based assessment. Giving grades by ranking is problematic because there is no fixed standard against which students are assessed.
This means that what a student has to do to receive an A in one year can vary from that required by a different student in another year: because both marks reflect a ranking, rather than a fixed standard of achievement.
Understanding this distinction between marking to criteria and ranking is necessary in order to understand the profound injustice wrought upon this generation of GCSE candidates by the government-driven insistence on decreases in overall GCSE grades.
This year, we expect national results for GCSEs and A levels to be similar to those in pre-pandemic years.
— Ofqual (@ofqual) August 8, 2023
Such a government directive immediately undermines standards – despite claims to be a robust defence of standards – because it breaks the link between grades and demonstration of fixed and transparent marking criteria. We know that exam boards are going to have to use some norm-based measures in order to meet the government directive.
In other words, no matter what these young people write on their exam scripts, no matter their achievements, no matter the learning that they demonstrate, there will be an overall “marking down”.
Beware the proffered excuse that this is correcting the indulgences of the pandemic years. Today’s GCSE students are also of the COVID generation. We must reflect on why we would want an educational system that mandates what 16-year-olds will be awarded, regardless of their actual academic achievements.
Author Bio: Jan McArthur is Head of Department and Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at Lancaster University