With GCSEs this week bringing results season to a close, EPI’s Jon Andrews reflects on a system that is much reformed, but still facing big challenges.
It is now two years since 16-year-olds in England first sat reformed GCSEs in English and mathematics. Just one of Michael Gove’s many significant reforms in his quest to achieve world class standards during his tenure as Education Secretary, the new qualifications are designed to be more rigorous, with new content and a move away from coursework. The Department for Education claimed that they would better equip students for the rigour of A levels.
This summer’s results represent the last major rollout of these new GCSEs, including new qualifications in design and technology, media studies, and statistics, among others. Qualifications in ancient languages and the final few modern foreign languages will complete the set next year.
This summer also saw the cohort of pupils who had taken the reformed qualifications in English and mathematics at GCSE pick up their A level results. On the day that they did, we learned that the number of entries in mathematics had fallen by 6 per cent, and further maths was down 10 per cent. The reforms had also failed to arrest the longer-term decline in English.
School leaders had previously warned of this trend, with pupils potentially losing confidence in their ability in these subjects or being less inclined to take subjects that they perceive as harder. As more data become available, we will need to find out which students are moving away from these subjects and what they are doing instead.
And what of GCSEs themselves?
As ever, the patterns of entry were heavily influenced by school accountability. It’s now nine years since schools were first incentivised into offering a more “academic” curriculum through the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc. The EBacc requires students to study a broad range of academic subjects – English, mathematics, sciences, humanities, and modern foreign languages. Prior to its introduction just one-in-five secondary pupils took this combination of GCSEs.
But despite an initial surge in entries, the proportion of 16-year-olds entering the EBacc has hovered at just below 40 per cent for the past five years. For disadvantaged pupils, that proportion falls to just one in four. We are still some way off the government’s target of 75 per cent entering the EBacc in 2022, let alone the 90 per cent target for just three years later.
Getting more pupils to study modern foreign languages is one of the many challenges to meeting that ambition. Official statistics show that if you are missing one subject in your EBacc set it’s very likely to be a language.
This year’s GCSE results suggest at least some positive news on that front. Entries into French, having been in long term decline, appear to be on the rise again and entries into Spanish have increased faster still – though we are still some way from seeing Spanish overtake French as the most popular language. As ever the devil is in the detail, or more specifically the more detailed data that we expect in the autumn that will show us whether this is a genuine increase in England’s state-funded schools or a quirk caused by shifting entry patterns amongst independents.
What we do know is that further progress could be made if the long-standing gender divide was addressed: if boys entered language subjects at the same rate as girls, numbers would be boosted by around 15,000.
But the government’s ambition will require more than such modest year-on-year increases. And it is not simply a case of encouraging more young people to take these subjects. It will also require a step change in the number of teachers that are able to teach them, at a time when schools are struggling with recruitment and retention, and in many subjects less than half of teachers hold a relevant degree.
There is also the wider concern that the focus on EBacc subjects is squeezing out other subjects from school timetables. While arts subjects are showing signs of recovery, design and technology continues its slide in popularity, down 23 per cent this year, and there have also been falls in music and PE.
Ultimately, the results that young people have been picking up in recent weeks are not simply a reflection of their efforts and those of their teachers, but also of their life beyond school.
By the end of secondary school, pupils from low income backgrounds are on average a year and a half behind their peers. Our recent annual report showed that progress in closing that gap has stalled and could be about to go into reverse.
And it matters not only for a young person’s GCSE results, but also what they go on to do next. While the summer results season’s noise is perhaps at its loudest on A level results day, the routes that students that take after GCSEs are numerous. But there is evidence to suggest that those routes are becoming more segregated with family background playing an important role in the path taken.
That has implications for the quality of provision that young people are likely to receive. While school budgets have tended to grab the headlines, funding for 16-19 education has fallen by 16 per cent over the last decade, and it is further education colleges that have been particularly badly hit.
So, while we celebrate the efforts of teachers and leaders in getting young people to achieve the results they have, we cannot expect them to fix everything: to improve the home learning environment, to mitigate the effects of child poverty, or to improve housing conditions.
The new Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his desire to ‘level up’ opportunity. In education, that needs to fall on more than schools and colleges alone.