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The 2017 Challenge For GCSE Students? Explaining What Their Results Mean

04/08/2017 14:05 BST | Updated 04/08/2017 14:05 BST
RICHARD BOUHET via Getty Images

The cliche 'You couldn't make it up' is overused in politics and the press, but when it applies to the education that our children receive it should be more than just a glib line trotted out when we don't like the latest government initiative.

As a former Maths teacher, I was always used to governments messing around with the syllabus in unnecessary ways and with ill-considered aims. Every new initiative would cascade change for change's sake throughout a school. If there's a new syllabus coming for Year 11, you need to start preparing for that syllabus in younger age groups. There's never enough past papers and resources for a new syllabus, and often the changes serve only to make things worse. Sometimes they'll introduce something new only to reverse the change a few years later. Fortunately I missed out on the changes that are coming in to the GCSE syllabuses for first examination this year. As far as content is concerned, I've previously written about the problems that are being created unnecessarily in Mathematics.

Today, I'm writing about the changes to GCSE grades across the board. Up until now, we've had eight grades from A* to G (with an 'A* with distinction' - commonly known as an 'A**' or 'A^' grade available for the Level 2 certificate in Further Mathematics. Apparently having eight (nine at a pinch if you count the A**) grades for GCSE isn't good enough. Now we need to have nine, for some reason known apparently only to Conservative government ministers.

That means re-doing the grades so that instead of an A* to G, students will get grades from 1 to 9. Fewer students will get a 9 than got the A*, but a 4 will be roughly equivalent to a C grade. The new number scale won't correspond to the numbering of old O Levels or CSEs of course. And with National Curriculum levels from 1 to 10 with occasional subdivisions being used for most assessment throughout primary and secondary school, this 1 to 9 scale will bear no clear relation to the 1 to 10 scale either. It becomes worse when you realise that the old O levels and CSE were graded on a system where a 1 was the highest mark, and the new GCSEs have a 1 as the lowest. Are you confused yet? There's a convenient chart explaining how the new marks correspond to the old GCSE grades in a beautifully non-linear way.

If this confusion weren't bad enough, they're not making the changes all at once. Students who sat their exams in 2017 will get a number to grade their Maths and English (Literature and Language) but a letter for their other subjects.

For example, let's suppose that John gets an 8, a 7, two As, four Bs and a C in his GCSEs this year.

More subjects then move across in 2018 to the new grades but not all of them do. Suppose that Sophie gets two 8s, two 7s, one 6, one A and three Bs.

Who has done better in their GCSEs overall, John or Sophie? You must show your working out. [4 marks]

From 2019, we're assured that 'most' subjects will be assessed on the new numerical system. The word 'most' is ominous. Now this is going to be bad enough for teachers (who've been tearing their hair out over the changes in general in Maths and English - which always seem to be the 'guinea pigs' in every change - and other subjects have followed). It's going to be worse for students, who are going to have to try to explain to confused family how they actually did in their exams. But it's going to prove almost incomprehensible to employers in a couple of years' time when they're trying to work out how well a candidate did in their exams.

The whole business is a total and utter mess. That's what you get when you unnecessarily tinker with the education system, but moving different subjects across to a new system at different times is unforgivably messy. The frustrating thing, is that these changes - first dreamed up by Gove - are so completely unnecessary. Were there problems in some subjects? Possibly so - but you don't fix them by also fixing non-existent problems whilst you're at it.

The real worry for every teacher though? Once the changes have finally come in, some bright spark in government might well decide to change the whole thing all over again. Politicians like changing things, you see. Sometimes though the best thing to do is leave everything well alone - and allow teachers sufficient time to become experts in what they're teaching.