ASCL leader calls for a more humane GCSE system

ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton is calling for a more humane qualification system as the number of pupils achieving a Grade 4 ‘standard pass’ in GCSE English and maths is expected to fall tomorrow (Thursday) consigning many more young people to a demoralising cycle of retakes in post-16 education.
Grading standards are being adjusted this year in England with the intention that they broadly reflect the grade distribution of 2019 as part of a return to normal following the disruption to public exams during the pandemic.
In 2019, more than a third of secondary pupils – 35.4% – fell short of at least a Grade 4 in English and maths. During the pandemic, this figure fell to 27.8% in 2021 because a different approach to grading was used following the decision to cancel public exams. Last year, when grades were set at a midpoint between 2021 and 2019 the proportion who missed out stood at 31.2%.
Many students who do not achieve the benchmark of a Grade 4 in these subjects have to keep retaking them during post-16 education under the government’s ‘condition of funding’ rules – but most do not achieve Grade 4 at this point either. In 2018, only 29.7% of 16–18-year-old students passed this threshold in English and just 18.2% in maths.
Mr Barton said:
“The return to normality also means a return to the forgotten third. That is the proportion of young people who are left at the end of secondary school without a standard pass in GCSE English and maths – qualifications which are very important for onward progression and careers.
“This is baked into the system – there is very little room for it to change – because the percentage of pupils achieving each grade is kept largely consistent from one year to the next.
“These young people then have to go through the grind of retaking these qualifications in post-16 education – where most again fall below the benchmark. It is incredibly demoralising and instead of building confidence in the vital skills of literacy and numeracy it has precisely the opposite effect.
“We have to introduce a more humane qualification system in which this forgotten third is not accepted as some sort of necessary collateral damage.
“The answer is to develop a new style of English and maths qualification which can be taken by pupils at the point of readiness, which builds confidence, and which does not represent a cliff-edge over which many must fall. We are calling upon ministers to commit to a reform that is badly needed and long overdue.”