23rd August 2017

What would it take for England to be considered a truly world class education system?

If you work in education research, the date of GCSE results day tends to be etched in your brain almost as much as it is for the 600,000 students and their teachers awaiting results. Anticipation has been even higher this year as we see the first outcomes in the new English and mathematics GCSEs on the 9-1 scale.

Even after students had started their courses there was some debate as to what would constitute a ‘good’ pass in these new qualifications. The government had previously set this as being a grade 5, but in March they announced that there would in fact be two pass levels – a standard pass at grade 4 and a strong pass at grade 5 – with both being used in school accountability.

Today, the Education Policy Institute, in conjunction with Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education, has published a major new study that considers what these new grades mean in terms of a world-class education system. Using the latest international PISA data and the National Pupil Database, we examine how far we need to travel if England’s education system is going to match the outcomes seen in the highest performing countries.

Our report shows that the Department for Education is right to set the new strong pass as a grade 5. If England is going to match the world’s best in mathematics then the average grade needs to improve from 4.7 to 5.4. To match the world’s best in English requires an improvement from 4.7 to 4.9.

In fact, we find that for England to be considered truly world class it would require pupils to achieve, on average, 50 points across their Attainment 8 subjects. So the so called ‘strong pass’ actually needs to become the norm.

Broadly speaking, if were to achieve this average we would expect around half of pupils to achieve more than 50 points, currently just under 40 per cent of pupils in England do so. But, as ever, the picture is varied and do doubt the fact that some areas of the country have got even further to go will be seized upon.

In the lowest performing areas – the Isle of Wight, Knowsley, Blackpool, and Nottingham – barely a quarter of pupils are currently achieving 50+ points in Attainment 8, and in the DfE’s opportunity areas the figure stands at under a third. That result, in itself, isn’t surprising. Those areas were chosen specifically because of historic underperformance issues but it demonstrates the level of challenge these areas face – and why DfE is right to focus on them.

And even high performing London isn’t, as a whole, matching a world-class standard just yet. With 45 per cent of pupils achieving 50+ points.

But this report isn’t one of despair, nor should it be. There are already 14 local authority areas that are meeting the standard and a further 12 that are close to doing so. England also fares well against other countries of the United Kingdom.

We are simply asking, can we do better?

Just as with Attainment 8 and Progress 8, our standard reflects the performance of all pupils. So a pupil who moves from a grade 1 to a grade 2 will change our national average point score in exactly the same way as a pupil who moves from a grade 4 to a grade 5, or from a grade 8 to a grade 9. We need to ensure that those improvements are happening across the board, and also address the persistent attainment gaps that exist for some groups. In fact, at a national level, closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers – equivalent to 19 months by the time of GCSE – would almost get us to the magic 50 point mark.

Today’s report is not about setting another new standard for individual schools or individual pupils to meet and to be held accountable for. Quite simply there is no need for it. The measures that are already in place – Attainment 8 and Progress 8 – whilst not perfect, achieve the same ends.

Our report is about setting an ambitious, but we believe realistic, standard of national achievement.

Over the next few days commentators, possibly me included, will hold forth on the new GCSEs and on the number of pupils getting a ‘standard pass’ or a ‘strong pass’. But simply increasing the number of pupils getting those is not going to deliver a truly world class education system. That requires great effort across the attainment distribution.

We should recognise where that’s happening. And we should celebrate it.