Thursday, September 30th, 2010
If there is anything certain about the education white paper which is going to be published by the Government by the end of the year, it would seem that a long-standing loophole in league tables is about to be closed.
The system of “equivalences”, whereby non-GCSE qualifications are given weightings worth several GCSEs for the purposes of the tables and of all official statistics, is about to change radically, it would appear.
For years, Intermediate General National Vocational Qualifications were counted in the rankings as “worth” four GCSEs. When schools realised that getting pupils to take them could see the school’s published statistics improve dramatically, numbers taking GNVQs rocketed accordingly.
GNVQs were phased out a few years ago, and the loophole also seemed to have been partially closed by the stipulation that schools were to be judged on the proportion of their pupils gaining five or more GCSEs (or equivalent), including English and maths. The latter part of that formulation made it impossible for schools to do well in the table solely on account of “equivalent” qualifications.
However, in recent years, other courses have been growing in popularity, seemingly because schools observed that these courses had high pass rates and that, if they could get pupils entered and then passing one of them, say, they only needed to get these students to achieve C grades in English and maths and at most one other qualification and the school’s statistical goal would be reached.
As I reported for the TES last month, entries for BTEC First qualifications (worth two or four GCSEs, according to the course), and OCR Nationals (worth 1, 2, 3 or 4 GCSEs) have shot up.
Michael Gove, education secretary, told the Edge Foundation charity earlier this month: “Some of these qualifications badged as vocational enjoy a ranking in league tables worth two or more GCSEs, making them attractive to schools anxious to boost their league table rankings. That has to be changed.”
Having covered some of the peculiarities of the exam system for years now, I still find myself surprised at times. The latest example came a few days ago, in relation to these equivalencies.
Thanks to the efforts of Roger Titcombe, a former head teacher with whom I’ve worked before investigating school results, I obtained the full GCSE – and equivalent – results for 2009 of a school which has won national recognition for improving its grades.
And the patterns unveiled in the grades would be astonishing , I think, to anyone who came to this information afresh, knowing only that GCSEs and other qualifications were deemed to be equivalent for official purposes.
The pattern was as follows. For almost all of the 20 GCSE courses offered in the school, almost the full range of grades had been awarded. In other words, children had scored grades ranging from A*s (although only a few of these were achieved in this school) down to Fs, Gs and even the occasional U. For maths, for which there were 165 entries, every grade – A*, A, B, C, D, E, F, G and U – was awarded to at least two students, while for English, which had the same number of entries, the picture was similar.
For the vocational qualifications, though, the picture was very different. Amazingly, of the 303 entries, in eight different BTEC First or OCR National qualifications, not a single one failed. All achieved starred distinctions, distinctions, merits or pass grades. The school also had pupils entered for 15 different assorted vocational qualifications, categorised simply as “Vocationally Related Qualifications” or basic skills tests. Again, all entries passed. This high pass rate, and the multiple-GCSE equivalences of some of these courses, meant that the school, which has been lauded for its success in rising up the “GCSE” league tables, actually chalked up more A*-C passes through non-GCSE courses than through GCSEs. Confusing, isn’t it?
Now, this may not come as a surprise to anyone who has experience of how this works in schools. It is well known that BTEC Firsts have had high pass rates, and indeed, I reported on the national rates in that TES article. More than 99 per cent of grades awarded nationally in the four-GCSE equivalent BTEC First Diploma last year were at pass or better. For the two-GCSE BTEC First Certificate, the figure was 97 per cent. This is despite Jerry Jarvis, former managing director of Edexcel, which runs the qualification, describing BTEC Firsts as qualifications schools could offer “If you think a student will fail to realise their potential by doing GCSEs”. And, for the OCR Nationals, the line from the OCR board which I received when writing that piece seemed to be that they could not give pass/fail rates for the qualification partly because pupils were only entered for it if they were ready to pass it.
All these points may strike some readers as not new. My latest thought, though, on seeing the relative grade profiles in this one school is this: how were these “equivalent” courses ever given equivalence with GCSEs, when the way they use the grade profile is so different?
Since GCSEs were introduced in 1988, GCSE examiners have used the full range of grades down to G to indicate a pass. Thus, officially at least, D and E grades were seen as worth something for pupils in that they were not deemed failures. The idea was that most children would come away from the exam with at least some credit for their work. The concept of meaningful D-G grades survives to this day, at least officially, despite the huge emphasis now given by the government and schools to achieving a C or better, making it the unofficial pass grade. And a glance at the national grade profiles for GCSEs confirms this, because the full range of grades are awarded.
The vocational qualifications also, clearly, have a pass grade. But the equivalence sets this as being the same not as a grade G, which is the official pass grade for GCSE, but a grade C. And because the GCSE grading system still uses the full A*-G range to reward pupils’ efforts, pupils at GCSE can easily find themselves missing out on a C (the crucial grade for schools, for accountability purposes). Yet the vocational qualifications system is, unsurprisingly perhaps, reluctant to see pupils coming away from a course with nothing. But there is no option for the system, under the equivalences, to give them less than a grade C (actually, often it will not give them less than two Cs, or four Cs), without actually failing them, leaving them with nothing. So almost all are awarded at least a pass grade. To put it another way, and to use the OCR National argument cited above, it could be argued that a child would only be entered for certification for an OCR National when they had a chance of a pass grade. But the fact that this pass grade has been set at equivalent of a GCSE grade C means there is no chance for them to gain credit for their work by earning a GCSE grade at less than C. So the entry system may more or less guarantee that if they are entered, they are going to get at least the equivalent of a GCSE grade C. Yet that is not how GCSEs work.The grading systems are different, so the equivalence is weird.
The confusion also reflects, I think, the politicisation of this system, and a bodged attempt at compromise by politicians. The fact that the GCSE allowed pupils to pass with a G grade may well have rankled traditionalists, who compared it to the old O-level structure in which a D was a fail. But rather than either sticking to the official position, in school accountability, that all grades from G upwards constitute a pass, or changing it so that the C grade was actually made the official pass mark, those in charge kept the G pass officially, but unofficially made the old O-level pass grade (a C) the benchmark by making this the centrepiece of league tables and top-down results pressure on schools. This is confusing: accountability says a C grade is the pass threshold, but the exam grading system says a G grade marks the boundary.
Some will counter that employers also have long regarded the C as the cut-off for success, so it is right for the focus to be put at this boundary. But I have to say I don’t completely buy that argument: a detailed report from the CBI in 2006 provides evidence that D grades were being accepted by employers then, while clearly higher grades than a C are also often required. So the situation is a lot more nuanced than the focus on C/D borderline pupils in schools would suggest. Grades confer relative, rather than absolute, advantage to students: employers (and higher education) tend to want students with the best grades, not always simply those above a somewhat arbitrary cut-off point.
Returning to the equivalences issue, the system really is comparing apples with bananas. It has to go, because the inflated value of non-GCSE courses has skewed schools’ decisions and has certainly meant some pupils have been pushed towards qualifications which are not as valued, in the reality of the employment and post-16 education worlds, as GCSEs, mainly because of the worth of the qualification to the school. That does not mean that these qualifications have not had value to individual pupils achieving them, by the way, just that the setting of the equivalences has clearly influenced schools’ decisions over who should take them. If the equivalence goes, it will be interesting to see how take-up of these popular non-GCSE qualifications fares; I would expect it to fall.
The detail of exactly how the Government sorts out this problem, though, is going to be interesting.