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.


  1. A very good article, i must say. Unfortuantelly, i have been affected by allowing school to make such decisions about pupil’s entries. At the moment, I am doing 8 GCSE subjects including English, literature, maths, geography, franch, polish, philosophy and ethics plus biology. The last one- biology, i am doing because i have asked for it as soon as i realized that i cannot do the traditional course of science, as i was entered for the OCR National Science course. I think this is ruining my future, because i wasnt asked at all if i would want to continue my careere in science related subjects at college. All my gcse subjects are targets at B’s and above, infact most of them are A’s and 4 A*. Therefore i see no reason for putting me into doing a btec subject, where i am capable of doing the traditional course. Something has to be changed, otherwise schools have too much freedom meaning that sometmes this might riun the kids future plans. Thank you.

  2. One thing that really needs to be considered when setting equivalences is the quantity and quality of work required for the qualification. If the quantity / quality of work needed to pass a hypothetical semi-vocational qualification is equivalent to that which would be required to pass a 100% coursework GCSE, then it should be pegged at that equivalence. If the quantity / quality of work required is equivalent to that of multiple 100% coursework GCSEs, then it should be pegged at that equivalence.

    But the main issue is probably that of coursework – these ‘newfangled’ qualifications are usually 100% coursework, and (particularly in terms of the ICT qualifications) the mark scheme is public, so pupils can (theoretically) self assess and work out what they need to do to improve their mark. As they remain in possession of their portfolio until the end of the course, if they get a low mark for a particular item of work in teacher assessment, they have the information necessary to improve it. So by the end of the course, if they have been diligent, they will have iteratively improved their grade throughout the duration of the course.

    For traditional GCSEs, which are at least partly examined, this is not possible. As Warwick states, the equivalency was only introduced for the purposes of league tables, so that pupils who had taken a semi-vocational qualification would be included in the results, rather than excluded; which would discourage schools from offering the courses.

  3. are qualifications “equivalent to GCSEs” less valued to universities than traditional GCSEs??
    I want to go onto uni to study med and i am currently working on an ocr nationals course in ICT, whislt me classmates are taking the normal full gcse. Will i have a lower chnce in getting into uni than them?

  4. Dini – many medical schools do not consider any level 2 qualifications apart from actual GCSEs (BTECs, OCR, etc).
    Some medical schools require a certain number of GCSEs at a certain grade (e.g. 6 As) – so using up your time in taking other qualifications at the expense of GCSEs is not the best idea. Sorry no one pointed this out to you sooner. You could talk to your school and see if it would be possible to switch to the full GCSE. Checking medical schools’ websites to see their required GCSE grades is a good idea (if all your other GCSEs are A*, for example, it won’t matter that you’ve done one OCR ICT course!).

  5. I’ve been thinking about this issue recently. And I’ve to say that I am a little bit regret of the fact that I did 2 non-GCSEs courses out of 11 1/2 subjects I’ve done, as I did not realise these courses will have bad effect on my academic values until recently.

    And the school I went to when I did my GCSEs two years ago, they do have the habbit to encourage students to take at least one/two vocational subjects, mainly because they want to boost their ‘school league’ table as stated by Warwick.

    And I am glad that I have only done two vocationals, which means leaving 9.5 of the subjects I took able to count forward by a grammar school that I’ve applied. Since they need to count your best 8 results and taking an average in order to rank the external students in order from highest to lowest until the limited allowance for a place.

    In the end, my results were sufficient for a place. But I will not able to get into the school, if I’ve done less than 8 GCSEs, as that will badly affect my average point when taking into that calculation, consequently affect my chance of getting into a better Uni since they are more fond of independents/grammars.

    At this point, I’ve realised how much academic value that grammars will require, although I heard about that some good Unis accept Btec Diploma for some easy courses, but for the ‘beefy’ ones like maths/english/science/history etc they only accept GCSEs, it’s also very true with some less demanding Unis/6th forms.

    Nevertheless, I am wondering why Ofsted/Michael Gove not making this change earlier or let the government to make the point clearer? So me and especially those who were hindered by such system could’ve gone for a more academic route.

    If you are talking about the country being a world class standard for educations as ever as before. It’s no difference than portraiting a stone as a gold. Seriously, espcially in Asians, courses like these have very/very low values, that’s why a lot students in China, Japan etc found themselves very competitive. But in the end, country like China has already produced more able talents than any other countries in the world.

    If academies are about raising standards, or as a nation about raising standards. Then it’s a shame to undergo such transition by encouraging more students to lay back and taking the easy route, in order to help the whole country producing a ‘better’ league table.

    However, we know only the true academic route is the way to go, as for better a reason to encourage more ‘unable’ students to have the ambitious to drive themselves up, hence not to avoid it in order to make life easier, and also providing comprehensives a more academic environment to provide the needed standard in making more students able to achieve a much better future.

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