To pass or not to pass: the dilemma of GCSE grading

By Tom Middlehurst, ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist

Over the past week a lot has been written about the number of pupils failing or passing their GCSEs compared to recent years. The government has rejected the language of ‘fail’, so where has this come from, and what does it mean – if anything – in practice?

Can you fail a GCSE?
Yes. But the only fail grade is a U, meaning that students have not got enough marks to achieve a Grade 1. This summer, 98% of qualifications were awarded at a Grade 1 or above – this is a pass.

So why are Grades 1 – 3 sometimes described as a fail by the media?
The Department for Education describes a Grade 4 as a ‘standard pass’ and a Grade 5 as a ‘good pass’ at GCSE. It is therefore unsurprising that media outlets, schools, colleges, and other stakeholders perceive something less than a Grade 4 as not a pass, i.e. a fail. But they are technically not a fail; Grades 1 to 3 are a pass.

This misconception is compounded by the fact that students who don’t achieve a Grade 4 or above in English and / or maths are required to resit the qualification as a condition of post-16 funding. In pre-pandemic years, less than a third of those students actually improved their grade during sixth form with one in ten achieving a lower grade than they did in Year 11.

How did this nonsense come about?
On GCSE and L2 VTQ results day 2023, schools minister Nick Gibb said that Grades 1 to 3 constituted a pass, which is factually accurate. What the minister clearly fails to understand is that the government’s continued decision to describe a Grade 4 and above as a ‘pass’ has obvious lexical implications. What is a grade lower than a pass, if not a fail? This was not language introduced by the media, by the sector, or by exam boards. It is implied by the government’s own use of language.

When reforms to GCSEs were introduced in 2016, there was a genuine opportunity to value all pass grades and move away from the obsession with C+, which created an over-emphasis on the C/D borderline in some schools at the expense of other students’ progression. The intention was there. But the opportunity was missed. Instead, then secretary of state Nicky Morgan decided to introduce a metric – and language – based around a ‘standard pass’ of 4+ and a ‘strong pass’ of 5+. Immediately, any hope of valuing all grades was dashed. The government – not Ofqual or the exam boards – had determined what a fail was by implication.

This is compounded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s requirement that any post-16 student who didn’t achieve a Grade 4+ in English and / or maths to resit their GCSE as a condition of post-16 funding. This applies to roughly a third of GCSE candidates in a normal exam year – a group of students we refer to as the ‘forgotten third’. Of that third, only a third usually go on to improve their grade, with 60% getting the same grade and 10% actually getting lower than they did in Year 11. The system is clearly broken. This requirement to resit an exam that – technically – students haven’t failed makes clear to students and other stakeholders which grades are valued. 

What can schools and colleges do about it?
First, remind students and parents that Grades 1 to 3 are a pass and for many of the young people who achieve this, it is recognition of significant progress and achievement.

Second, celebrate all achievements this summer. For many students achieving a Grade 3 is a major accomplishment and should be celebrated in the same way as a student who achieves a Grade 9.

Third, be clear with trustees, governors and other stakeholders that Grades 1 to 3 are a pass. The government’s metrics regarding 4+ are its own; governors can define their own performance metrics but should of course be mindful of national expectations.

Are the outcomes pre-determined by the exam system and comparable outcomes?
No. Ofqual is clear that if the performance of students in exams improves, then so will grades. In theory, there is no reason why 100% of students can’t achieve a Grade 4+. The mechanism for assessing whether overall performance improves (or declines) is the National Reference Test but in reality, movement in any direction is very small. The fact is that there will always be some students who will never perform at a Grade 4 level in the current GCSEs. 

So, when ASCL talks about it being ‘baked in’ that a third of students fall short of Grade 4, we mean that is a stubborn and inexcusable outcome of insufficient funding and support for the most vulnerable pupils in our system. This was exacerbated by the pandemic, when the government rejected the proposals of its own recovery commissioner which led to him resigning soon after its response.

Our other concern is the current system of grading at GCSE results in a lack of dignity for a third of young people after over a decade of education. We need a system that genuinely values the outcomes of all students and allows all to enjoy being proud of their achievements.

What is ASCL’s solution to this?
ASCL launched an independent commission of inquiry in 2018 to look into how to improve the prospects of the Forgotten Third. You can read more here. Since then, we have been clear that a new ‘certificate’ for literacy and numeracy would be very welcome, a proposal we repeat in our 2022 Blueprint for a Fairer Education System.

This would be a new gold-standard assessment, which young people and adults could take when they’re ready – typically aged 16. Criterion-based, it would demonstrate to future employers and education providers that candidates are literate and numerate.

The current GCSEs in English and maths really only act as a proxy for this. A new assessment for literacy and numeracy would free these qualifications up to become better reflections of the disciplines of English language, English literature and maths.

As we head to a General Election next year, we will be working with you as members to map out how this could work in practice and what the drawbacks might be so that we can present the new government, whatever it may be, with a detailed plan of what it could do for these students. We think any educational reform must be treated with caution – as we know the workload implications for you are huge so we want to make sure this is the right thing.

But the simple truth is that we cannot continue with a system that tells a third of students they have failed their education aged 16 – even when they haven’t.

Tom Middlehurst is ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist
Posted: 29/08/2023 12:11:44