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GCSEs are out, and once again, and overall, there’s little change - just a slight rise in the number of A*-C grades with 68.8% of entries gaining an A*-C compared to 68.1% last year.

However, a number of underlying changes to the way GCSEs work has meant that although results are “relatively stable”, individual colleges and schools can see “volatility in their results” as noted but Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications.

Firstly, changes to the nature of GCSEs whereby a linear structure with all exams at the end of a two-year GCSE course compared to coursework and modules, and changes to the structure of performance tables whereby only a student’s first attempt at an exam is counted towards the school’s results has resulted in fewer pupils taking early entrance exams. Many schools have ceased to enter 15-year-old Year 10 students early, with 300,000 fewer early entries this year. Maths results have benefited from this, with the percentage achieving A*-C rising 4.8 percentage points to 62.4%.

Secondly, for English GCSE, speaking and listening is now graded separately and does not count in the overall results. Most students in that past have done better in this teacher-marked element than in reading and writing, and the change sees 60% of the course now externally assessed through exam papers rather than the previous 40%. This has resulted in the number of A*-C grades in English down 1.9 percentage points to 61.7%.

The exam changes may also hit individual schools in different ways with the government noting that the changes are necessary to raise standards and to give students an “in-depth understanding”.

The reforms to GCSEs to the linear, non-modular courses only apply in England, while the overall GCSE figures include England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As they are looking increasingly dissimilar it is difficult for schools to forecast what students might expect to achieve or compare the school’s results with previous years. Therefore statistical trends are becoming less and less meaningful.

Further changes to GCSEs

Further changes to GCSEs mean that pupils will spend three years, instead of the current two, studying for crucial subjects such as maths and English. Many schools are expected to begin GCSE studies when their pupils are 13, in response to government education reforms that have made exams harder.

The switch is most likely to be in maths, where the new GCSE will require more in-depth knowledge of the subject, particularly in algebra and geometry. The new exam, to be set for the first time in the summer of 2017, is considered so demanding that an existing additional maths exam has been scrapped because its topics will be covered in the new GCSE.

Changes are also likely in the maximum number of GCSEs teenagers will take - reducing from 12 to 8 - as new exam performance will rank schools on their performance in only eight key subject areas. These include the English Baccalaureate subjects of English, maths, science, a language and a humanities subject.

In the past, league tables have concentrated on the percentage of pupils getting A*-C grade passes, including maths and English, prompting concerns that teachers focus on borderline C grade candidates rather than stretching brighter pupils to obtain A* or A grades.

Teachers will be able to choose between two papers: higher maths, which offers pupils a pass at grades 4 to 9; and a less testing paper, which offers only grades 1 to 5. The numbered structure will replace the present A*-G system with a nine-grade scale in which a pass of 9 resembles something akin to an A**.

In this way, there will be an extra hour spent in the classroom on maths per week as well as many starting to teach it from Year 9.

Head teachers create their own league tables

At the same time, head teachers in England have put forward plans to publish their own school league tables this autumn. This would be separate from the official performance data published by the government, which is currently used to generate school rankings. Heads want to include more information about schools than exam results, such as music and sport.

The planned alternative league tables would be published by schools earlier than the official tables, when parents are making school choices for the following year. They argue that they want to present an independent and more inclusive view of schools and believe their system will be more objective than the measures chosen by government.

The current approach can often detrimental, for example it focuses too much on the C/D borderline, especially in English and maths, or promoting choices of qualifications which do not serve the interests of individual pupils.

These heads also believe that the new system of recognising only a pupil’s first entry in exams deters schools from entering young pupils with the view to retaking them if they want to improve results.

Education until adulthood

Another big change this year is the fact that students collecting their GCSEs will now be obliged to participate in education and training until at least the end of the academic year in which they turn 17. From the summer of 2015, this will be extended until their 18th birthday. This will be the first time since the 1970s that the leaving age has been increased.

Arguments for extended education and training include the UK’s performance in education participation rates of 15 to 19-year-olds. In 2011, the UK’s rates stood at 78%, compared to an OECD average of 84% and an EU average of 87%. In an increasingly knowledge-based labour market, this figure is viewed as an important indicator of future economic competitiveness.

Secondly, after declining in the mid-1990s, the proportion of 16-18 year old NEETs has remained fairly constant (9-10%) despite various attempts to reduce the figure.

Spending periods as NEET at a young age has been associated with future wage and employment penalties, so reducing this rate is vital to improving young people’s prospects. It would also lead to savings for the treasury, in terms of both additional tax revenues and foregone benefit payments.

However, recent years have also seen the removal of a number of financial and advisory support systems designed to encourage young people to remain in education.

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