A record – best ever or steepest decline

As dawn on Thursday 25 August broke, the news channels were welcoming GCSE students and their families with best wishes prior to visiting school to collect their personal GCSE results. The narrative this year is different because the government has changed so many of the ground rules about what the exam boards are able to publish and how they (the DfE) are going to measure school performance.

Here’s the editor of Schools Week’s, Laura Mcinerny, take on the matter, writing on the 24 August: “Not having knowledge of these headline measures tomorrow will be massively annoying for school leaders trying to work out how well they did nationally”. It has not been annoying just to school leaders but to the press as well, so instead they find the following headline to run from about 10am:

BBC headline

So that’s typical of lazy journalism for you, seeking a fear and doom headline to attract clicks and attention.

Before I continue with the above ‘bad news’ stuff, I’d just like to confirm that Claires Court students have had an excellent year, beating all sorts of previous high tide marks in specific subjects, and more generally, doing very well thank you kindly.

We are a school that values the talents in all of its children and our 108 Year 11 students cover the full ability spectrum. For 90% to gain 5 or more GCSEs indicates outstanding outcomes for the cohort, reflecting the hard work put in by our students, teachers, and it must be said families, over the past 2 years. Elsewhere will see overall % pass rates stall as GCSEs revert to terminal examinations only, yet I am delighted that so many top grades  have been achieved across our really broad and innovative curriculum offer. We don’t narrow choices and the breadth of these successes means our students are able to proceed into Sixth Form studies in a myriad of subject styles and mix.  Boys get a really bad press at this time of the year, given their failings nationally to demonstrate high levels of  academic achievement, but when 93% gain 5 or more GCSEs, a school record performance in the last 10 years, that does need mentioning! Boys and girls will be rightly celebrating when they open their results this morning, and actually if their results are not quite as high as they would like, after 5 years in a good school, maybe this is indicating that a different subject mix of approach is needed for that next set of steps. 

The Independent Schools Council publish our results next week, and good though our results are, ISC vet our work for quality assurance purposes. You’ll already know the DfE do not accept that at least half of the GCSE taken by Independent Schools are to be included in their data trawl, and schools such as Eton are recorded as having Zero% gaining 5 or more GCSEs. This winter when DfE reports on school results, it is to ignore our sector completely, Praise the Lord, so the ISC published data becomes even more important as a source of information on school performance.

Here’s Laura Mcinerney at the close of her article: “As schools are judged by a series of measures, rather than just the 5A*-C grade pass rate, and as those results get harder to work out (which they will in upcoming years due to more changes) it means the focus of results day will go back to where it should be. The hard work of pupils and their teachers. All we will be able to tell is that individuals got the grades they needed for the next step, or they didn’t. And concentration can go on ensuring everyone is going to an appropriate course, job, college, university, whatever, that will best help them learn the next things they need to learn”.

Now back to that ‘lazy journalism’. The decline in performance does not mean that pupils are doing worse or that standards have risen. Actually no one really knows what this set of one-off figures means for sure but in essence the big changes are:

From this summer, State schools are being measured for their attainment and progress measures against a narrow basket of subjects, and Science, History or Geography and a Language are all in there. BTEC is no longer permissible at this level, so there has been a massive increase on 22.5% entry in Science GCSEs for example. Likewise, Geography, History and Languages are really demanding disciplines, and if candidates are switched in to them from non-exam based courses because of the new system, then expect to see an apparent drop in pass rates, because more weaker students have been returned to these core disciplines. So it is not a real decline, just indicative of the narrowing of the curriculum in state schools so that they meet the performance targets set for them.

As ever, we now have the target becoming more important than the process, which is not an approach that I welcome for our country’s state schools, and the headlines that results are getting worse is a crap welcome to the day for those opening their GCSE envelopes today.

And finally for the record:



About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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