The accountability framework and gaming
Focus on C grade distorts the system
League tables measure what proportion of pupils are awarded at least a C grade in English, maths and three other subjects at GCSE level. The resulting dividing line separates what the FT describes in a Leader as ‘ the pedagogical sheep from the goats’. Schools therefore have an incentive to focus teaching time and resources on pupils who are judged by their school to be on the borderline C/D grade at GCSE. This has long been the case. Ofqual (not Ofsted) has discovered, unsurprisingly perhaps, that thousands of teenagers are being put in for multiple GCSE maths exams in the hope they will get crucial C grade passes in at least one of them. As much as 15 per cent of candidates sitting GCSEs – around 90,000 candidates – were last year submitted for maths exams with more than one board. Ofqual officials believe there will be a repeat this year because the pressures that drove schools to do it – including boosting performances in league tables – are still there.
This distorts teaching incentives with real consequences for what children learn. Schools self-evidently have few incentives to push more able and gifted students to achieve high grades – or indeed to help weaker pupils who are rated as having a slender chance of reaching a C grade. Too much of the effort goes into heaving borderline candidates over the dividing line . This serves to work against the interests of a majority of pupils.
Ironically, given successive governments very public commitments to increasing social mobility, the pupils most likely to have the potential to be socially mobile are the most able, who are not being given the support they deserve to realise their potential under the current accountability regime. It is also clearly the case that raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils (on Free School Meals) and closing the achievement gap between them and their peers is going to be made infinitely harder if the focus remains on the C/D boundary as FSM pupils tend to be at the bottom of the attainment spectrum.
Professor Chris Husbands, of London university’s Institute of Education got straight to the point when he said “Multiple entries have generally been driven by the impact of the school accountability framework rather than the best interests of young people.”The interests of young people should always be paramount.
There is also a rather fundamental question that needs to be answered in these austere times. Exams cost the taxpayer a lot of money. Is entering a pupil for two exams in the same subject, with different boards, a responsible use of taxpayers money ?
The good news is that the government appears to be moving away from the C to D borderline. A consultation is under way about switching to a points-based measure that would address some of the problems associated with the current system.