Michael Gove’s decision to halt his overhaul of GCSEs is being treated with unabated glee in some quarters. The Government has announced that it will not replace GCSEs with the English Baccalaureate. Instead GCSEs will be reformed so that exams are sat at the end of the two-year course. Nor will there be single examination boards for core subjects (particularly sad as this was an issue on which there was cross-party consensus that this was a good thing).
Many criticisms have been hurled at the Government’s proposals, but amongst the most disingenuous has been that they would create a ‘two-tier’ system in which clever children would sit the new O levels (or ‘Gove Levels’) leaving their peers permanently disadvantaged with less-valuable CSEs. Indeed, such a system was explicitly ruled out by Gove in June.
But in reality a two-tier system has already operated for some time.
For many years the standard league table criteria has been the achievement of five A* to C grades at GCSE including English and maths. Smuggled into these stats were about 3,000 ‘equivalent’ qualifications such as the oft-reported Btec in fish husbandry (worth 2 GCSEs), level 2 diploma in horse care (4 GCSEs), level 2 awards in nail technology and the like. The well-known danger of equivalence is that some schools came to game the system, entering pupils for easier equivalents in order to boost their own league-table positions.
So extreme is this distortion that in more than a third (2,177) of all secondary schools, one in 10 pupils do not achieve a single A* to C grade at GCSE, and in 370 secondaries, almost one in three do not.
This drift from core subjects disproportionately affects poorer pupils. Currently those not eligible for free school meals are almost three times more likely to be entered for the EBacc GCSEs (English, mathematics, a science, a language, and history or geography) than those who are.
All this matters. Driving young people away from bedrock academic qualifications limits the options they have later, closes down future opportunities and stalls social mobility.
This is just one reason why Gove’s announcement that he would radically overhaul GCSE league tables was very welcome. The Secretary of State promised two new measures:
… the percentage of pupils in each school reaching an attainment threshold in the vital core subjects of English and maths; and an average point score showing how much progress every student makes between key stage 2 and key stage 4. The average point score measure will reflect pupils’ achievement across a wide range of eight subjects. As well as English and maths, it will measure how well pupils perform in at least three subjects from the English baccalaureate—sciences, history, geography, languages—as well as computer science, and also in three additional subjects, whether arts subjects, academic subjects or high-quality vocational qualifications.
The new metrics will mean that every pupil’s results will contribute to their school’s league table result so that, unlike with the current crude cut-off measure, pupils sinking below the C-line will not be forgotten. But they will also firmly nudge all schools towards providing a firm academic base whilst leaving room for diversity in the curriculum.