The most important development in this year’s GCSEs is the decline in separate sciences

Posted on: 29 Aug 2014
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and former head master of Harrow school, writes...

Ofqual has used the comparable outcomes approach to keep grade distributions for GCSE subjects in England stable in order to protect the interests of this cohort of candidates and ensure that they should not be disadvantaged by the changes of the past two years.

Analysis of national exam data is difficult. If you want to compare results this year with results last year you must not include the results of Year 10 candidates because the size and nature of this group is so different. You have to focus on the results of Year 11s.

If you want to comment on the impact of English GCSE going linear and the withdrawal of speaking and listening you will want to look at data for England only, as these reforms only apply in England. So you need the data for 16 year olds at English schools.

However, for 2014 even this turns out to be a pretty fruitless exercise because the GCSE results in English exclude the 20 per cent who have shifted over to take the International GCSE , whose results are not collected and released by JCQ. Nor do they include most of the 150,000 who took the GCSE last November – a group which included many of the more able.

The proportion of 16-year-olds getting a C or better in English fell by 1.6 percentage points. Schools that relied on a modular approach and multiple resitting are more likely to have suffered; data published on the Ofqual website confirms this analysis. Equally, schools that in the past relied on very good marks in the speaking and listening element of English will have felt the effects this year.

Maths results, however, improved significantly with the proportion gaining a C or better rising from 62 per cent to 66 per cent.

There are also several important trends in terms of subject choice. Most important has been the decline in entries for separate sciences – down 13 per cent in physics, 15 per cent in chemistry and 16 per cent in biology amongst 16-year-olds. This is because of a switch to combined sciences and poses a threat to the continued rise of A-level hard sciences.

Given the protests of the arts community about the impact of the reforms, it is noteworthy that entries for art rose by almost 10,000 in a year when the size of the 16-year old cohort fell by 2.1 per cent. The Gove reforms have not damaged the arts.

The same is true of Religious Studies. The EBacc performance measure looked like a threat to RS, but numbers of 16-year-olds taking the GCSE rose by nearly 23,000 this year.

The reforms which have made GCSEs more demanding in England do not apply in Wales. It will therefore be a shock to the Welsh that, while maths GCSEs results have improved in England, they have deteriorated further in Wales.

Looking to the future: reformed GCSE syllabuses in English Language, English Literature and Maths are being looked at by Ofqual now and starting to appear on websites once approved. Teaching for these will start in 2015 although many schools will be embarking on the new larger maths syllabus this term.

Many independent schools take iGCSEs, especially in maths and sciences. Some iGCSEs are not counted in performance tables and none will in 2017, but that was true for many years before 2010 and did not deter us. Whether we move to the reformed GCSEs (which has attractions - the reformed A-levels have been designed to lead on from the reformed GCSEs and dull coursework has been stripped out of many reformed GCSE subjects), will depend a bit on the detailed syllabuses of the reformed GCSEs.

First published in The TES.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.