Last week, the TES, the leading UK teachers’ magazine, ran a number of fascinating pieces on the “EBC”, the proposed successor to the GCSE – the exam taken by English children at the age of 16. The basic point is that the Department for Education has come up with a plan for a new qualification that is causing grave concern within Ofqual, as has been made public, as well as among school leaders, inspectors and its own civil servants.
When the plan to reform GCSEs was originally leaked to the Daily Mail, it contained the claim that the new GCSE would only be for the brightest three-quarters of children. I wrote at the time that this would be problematic. The Lib Dems insist this aspect of the plan has gone. Some rightwingers appear to hold the opposite impression.
For their part, DfE officials are working under the assumption that children will need to know more to reach the lowest passing grade on the new qualification. But they also assume children will respond to the exam changes by learning more, so no more children will fail. This is, it is fair to say, an assumption resting on a rather thin evidence base.
Would it matter if this were to be wrong, and children were to leave with no qualifications, rather than getting an F or a G? After all, it is certainly true that an F or a G gives a pupil very little labour market benefit. For pupils themselves, these lower grades primarily act as a guide to how much further they have to go.
But the main benefit of awarding Fs and Gs at GCSE is to the school system. They mean that schools do not strong incentives to pick weaker pupils out for other, easier exams. And keeping such students on the GCSE track means they have some chance of getting a C or better, even if teachers misread their ability early on.
If you reform the system such that the exam does not measure the ability of more children, this important benefit will, one way or another, be eroded. And who will be affected? Once again, it is the children in the poorest neighbourhoods.
To illustrate this, this graph describes an exam system that works on the basis that 95 per cent of people will get some kind of passing grade – however low. I have used the average GCSE grade for each child in a mainstream state school as a proxy for their overall academic ability, and assumed that the five per cent with the lowest grades would fail under the new system. This is a bit rough ‘n’ ready, but is good enough for our purposes.
So what happens if a given exam excluded the bottom 5 per cent of children on this measure from some notional new examination? How many fail and so get “excluded” from measurement? You can see that a child in the poorest neighbourhoods has a 10 per cent chance of being in this band – twice the national average.
I have added a second band: “at risk”. This takes in the next 10 per cent of children, too. Schools might – wrongly – guess they will be below the line. Again, this line skews poor.