A level and GCSE results days are nearly upon us, and we are seeing the inevitable speculation that happens every year at this time.
There is more speculation than usual about GCSE results for a number of reasons. We at Ofqual have already flagged that GCSE results are likely to look a little different, and I will say more about that later on, but we can expect more speculation in any event - because of GCSE English last year, and because the prospect of the reformed GCSEs in the future is making people anticipate a harder stance now.
With all the speculation, I think there are some things that we at Ofqual need to be clear about to avoid misunderstandings.
Let’s start with GCSE science qualifications. New science GCSEs have been taught in schools since September 2011, and they are being awarded for the first time this year. These new GCSEs are in the separate sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and additional science and additional applied science. They replace the previous versions, which we found did not properly test students on the whole course. The new science GCSEs do cover the whole course, and as they cover more than before they are likely to be more challenging for some students. So, logically, we are expecting a small drop in achievement overall in the sciences.
There has been some talk about GCSE Maths. What we have done here is emphasise to exam boards the need to set grade boundaries that reflect the quality of work expected at key grades. We have done that because we have looked closely with maths experts at the boundaries that were being set previously, and we found that they were not always being set well enough – at the right level. It is our job to look at qualifications in this way, to scrutinise them and to make sure that any shortcomings are dealt with, so as to maintain standards.
So, other than GCSE sciences, we are not changing the standards expected in any GCSE, AS or A level qualifications. Our whole approach is aimed at making sure the right standards are carried forward from one year to the next and are consistent across exam boards. Nevertheless we do think the headline GCSE results may look different this year, and that will be because we are maintaining standards – not taking a different or harder stance, but keeping standards steady. Let me explain.
We have seen a lot of changes to how and when schools are entering their students for GCSEs, with more being entered a year early, more students taking more than one qualification in the same subject (especially in maths) and more students taking similar but different qualifications (especially in English). On top of that, students are making different subject choices at both GCSE and A level, with a trend towards the more traditional subjects. The upshot of all that is that the group of students taking each qualification is different to the group that took it last year, and that means that the two sets of results will look different.
Younger students may well be less ready for GCSEs than those who are a year older, and so they may not do so well. Students taking more than one GCSE in the same subject may be more prepared for one than the other, and so they may perform differently in each one, or they may be more or less prepared overall. And with the increased popularity of the traditional subjects we can expect that some students will find them more challenging than others.
We know that as the student mix changes year on year, so results differ, and altogether there has been an unusual amount of change in the student mix this year. When results do look a little different, it does not mean standards have changed – quite the opposite. It means that standards have stayed the same even though other things have changed.
Of course, results can look the same or just a little different nationally but very different at individual school level. The GCSEs are all relatively new, especially English and Maths, and it is usual to see variation of results at schools as they adapt differently to new qualifications. On top of that, the changes to the way schools are entering pupils for GCSEs, and the different choices being made by different schools may make big differences at individual schools that are not visible in the national picture.
And there is one final point I need to make here, which is about a suspicion of political interference in the exam results. There is no political influence over the awarding process for GCSEs and A levels. It is Ofqual’s job to make sure standards are set appropriately and the exam boards carry out their tasks properly. We do this independently of Ministers. This was a large part of the court case last year. If anyone still has doubts, I recommend they read the judgement from that case, which sets this out quite clearly.
If you wish to know more about how standards are set and about the changes to qualifications this year then do look on our website. You can find information about standard setting here, about maths GCSE here and about early and multiple entry here