- GCSEs represent Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum. They were introduced in 1986, with the first exams in 1988.
- A new grade (A*) was added in 1994.
- Critics say GCSEs are easier than they used to be. This is one of the premises behind the government's reforms to qualifications at this stage.
- The National Curriculum Review will also affect GCSEs.
A constant rise in pass marks? Evidence of grade inflation
Since their inception, there's been almost continuous improvement in grades. However, in the past two years there's been a fall in the proportion of students achieving a C grade or higher. In this paper Ofqual explains some of the reasons behind the change in GCSE results this year.
- A*-C is often used as a measure of how many pupils are getting 'good' passes at GCSE.
- The pass rate for grades A*-C has increased by almost two-thirds from 42.5% in 1988 to 68.1% in 2013.
- A*/A grades have almost trebled from 8.6% in 1988 to 21.3% in 2013.
- In 1994 2.9% of students achieved an A*; in 2013 it was 6.8%.
More A* grades don't necessarily mean improved performance
The Centre for Educational Assessment at Oxford University (OUCEA) published a report this April on the evidence behind GCSE reform. It concluded that evidence for grade inflation is mixed. Some subjects present a big variation; others nothing at all.
According to OUCEA, grade inflation - particulary in higher education - is a concern in many countries.
In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said the apparent rise in GCSE grades in England was not matched by a similar rise in our Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, which had remained static.
"Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor."
Girls score higher than boys
Since 1992, the average percentage points gap (for A*-C grades) is seven percentage points.
This gap has been partially attributed to:
"the modular structure and course work components of GCSE which have rewarded consistent application to school work, which is more often a characteristic of girls. Boys tend to show up better in end-of-course examinations."
GCSE reforms: English, maths and science first, with languages to follow
Michael Gove has set out his policy and curriculum objectives and asked Ofqual to formulate a reform programme.
Changes to GCSEs include:
- The current system of grades A*-G will be replaced by a scale of nine (best) to one.
- All GCSEs will become linear, which means examinations will only take place in the summer (with the exception of English and Maths resits).
- A reduction in the number of subjects that are 'tiered', where pupils sit either a 'foundation' (where the best grade currently attainable is a C) or 'higher' examination.
- Exams will be the default method of assessment. Internal assessment (classroom tests) will only be used "where exams cannot validly assess the skills and knowledge required".
June - August 2013: Consultation
1 November 2013: Outcome of consultation is announced
September 2015: Teaching of new award in English, mathematics, biology, history etc. expected to begin
September 2016: Teaching for languages and other subjects expected to begin
Summer 2017: First exams (English, maths and sciences)
Summer 2018: First exams (modern and ancient languages and other subjects)