Another Year, Another Results Day - What's Different in 2018?
The climax of a twilight summer; the culmination of one’s formative education, perhaps, one of the most frightening days in any intellectual pursuit… GCSE results day.
Amidst the disconcerting live result openings on TV, maddening platitudes and inherent self-doubt, there’s a special story to be found in this year’s GCSE crop (although last year had a significant change to their programme, they were very much the proverbial guinea pigs).
The class of 2018 were the first to deal with the new GCSE format– a GCSE format that completely overhauled standardized education in England. This year's GCSE candidates were the first to sit 'tough' new exams under a reformed curriculum - here's what the new grading system means.
The dramatic reforms come as part of a government drive to improve schools’, pupils’ and employers’ confidence in the qualifications, ensuring that young people have the knowledge and skills needed to go on to work and further study. According to Department for Education officials, the new GCSEs are “more challenging”, covering more content than in previous years. They are to be graded from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade, rather than A*-G. New GCSEs are linear in structure rather than modular, with all exams at the end of a two-year course.
Although the exams will cover more challenging content, the DfE insists this won’t necessarily mean pupils score lower grades than they might have under the old system. Exam boards will use statistics to set standards so that:
• broadly the same proportion of students will achieve grade 7 and above as achieved grade A and above in 2016;
• broadly the same proportion of students will achieve grade 4 and above as achieved grade C and above in 2016; and
• the bottom of grade 1 will align with the bottom of grade G in 2016.
But this assumes a stable entry to the exams. Where the entry changes significantly then the overall results in August will reflect any changes in the cohort of students. For example we know that there has a large increase in numbers entering English Literature this year, and we expect that the average ability of the cohort entering the exams will therefore be lower than last year. If that assumption is correct, results will also be lower.
Experts have been critical of the reforms, with the Department's own chief analyst predicting that only two pupils in England are likely to achieve top grades in all the new subjects being phased in this year. “2 is my guess – not a formal DfE prediction," tweeted Dr Tim Leunig, who is also chief scientific adviser to the DfE. "With a big enough sample, I think someone will get lucky...” Equally, it is worth noting this changing system has not been cheap for the government, in fact, they have spent half a million pounds on merely explaining these changes.[i]
But, the more lively debate is about the effectiveness of these changes: with many arguing that this GCSE results day we will be the first time we have results we can rely on. This GCSE cohort is the first time any GCSE has even been completely free of ‘coursework’ and ‘controlled assignment’. To fully understand the gravity of this, we must fully understand the more we pressured teachers to get high grades out of the students, the more we saw the rules pushed to their limits, and the more we saw students experiencing different interpretations of the rules in classrooms across the country.
The teachers who bent – and, let’s not mince our words, in some cases, broke – these rules, did not do so in some Machiavellian scheme to improve their pay: they did it because they thought everyone else was. So, theoretically, the exam results opened in late August shouldbe the fairest they’ve ever been.
The obvious downside to this, as articulated by countless studies, students and teachers, is that harder exams mean more stress: for students and teachers. A Guardian call out in May 2018 articulated responses including accounts of suicide attempts by two pupils at one school, breakdowns, panic attacks and anxiety levels so intense that one boy soiled himself during a mock exam. Pressure in classrooms has been intense for the past two years as teachers have grappled with the new specifications, for which they say there are inadequate resources or revision materials. The new exams have been launched at a time when budgets are shrinking, schools are in deficit and parents are increasingly being asked to fill the gaps with everything from monthly cash donations to glitter glue, pens and even toilet paper.
Nonetheless, the general consensus is that exam results won’t massively change from last years – but that isn’t to say the change in protocol isn’t significant: it has significantly affected countless students and teachers, demonstrably changed the course of lives and have been introduced into an inherently turmoil educational paradigm.