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What do we really know about the new GCSE grades?

Today marks GCSE results day, and the introduction of the 1-9 grading system for Maths, English, and English Literature.

Already, the media have branded this new system as the “biggest exam shake-up in [a] generation”, whilst expressing fears that thousands of students will receive the incorrect grades for their results, that these “harsher” exams could have a negative impact on mental health (which could well prove to be a self-fulfilling prophesy, by virtue of the media’s saying it), and that only half as many pupils are likely to achieve the top grades, compared with last year.

Thus far, the media reports seem rather hyperbolic in nature.  In reality, the number of students achieving a grade 4 or above (equivalent to a 'C' in the old system) has dropped by only 0.6 percentage points- hardly a cataclysmic shock, and far from suggesting that the standard of the marking has returned to that of O-Levels in the 1960s and 70s. Over 2,000 students have achieved the top grade in all three reformed subjects, and concerns have been raised that that is fewer than half the number of pupils compared with last year.  One question that has yet to be openly debated is whether that should be a legitimate concern. 

Surely the purpose of an examination system is to assess a student’s kn owledge robustly, whilst allowing the most able students to excel.  In light of that fact, any marking system which does effectively discriminate on the basis of academic ability should be actively encouraged.  Further thought should be put into whether the current examinations are, in fact, written to test pure ability and potential, or whether very bright students, who perhaps do not have access to the best teachers, are systematically put at a disadvantage.

Over the past decade, the more competitive U.K. universities have had to introduce more admissions tests.  This has been in part due to many subjects at A-Level reverting to linear assessment, but also to reflect the fact that so many students are achieving the top grades; it is no longer possible to assess academic prowess based on public examination performance alone.  This grade inflation has been up for debate in many academic arenas for a number of years, with some academics feeling that it was a government objective to mask the root of the problems that have appeared in secondary education.  This is one of the reasons why many academics support the re-introduction of grammar schools.

For many students, having to sit yet more examinations as part of an admissions procedure to higher education does cause a certain amount of anxiety and stress, and it could be argued that a relatively relaxed marking culture where so many students achieve the higher grades actually has a negative impact in terms of mental wellbeing on the more able students.  It should not be the case that there is almost an expectation that public examination results should build a student’s self-esteem (which should never be based on academic performance anyway).  Rather, it is far more rewarding for a student to celebrate their success knowing that theirs has been a battle hard fought.

A number of people are speculating about the impact this new grading will have on university admissions, and the reality is that it is too premature to pass judgement.  There is absolutely no reason to assume that students achieving a grade 7 (equivalent to an old 'A' grade) will have statistically lower chances of securing places at Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities compared with students in the old grading system. 

It may be a good few years before we can begin to speak with any authority about the threshold in performance under this new grading system to secure places to the top universities in the U.K., and indeed whether universities attribute more or less weight to GCSE results as an indicator of future performance.

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