Coffee House

What influences GCSE grades?

23 August 2012

1:01 PM

23 August 2012

1:01 PM

For the first time in the history of GCSE exams, this year’s results have seen a decline in grades. Today, the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, announced that the number of papers marked A*-C has dropped from 69.8 per cent last year to 69.4 per cent. A grades have dropped by 0.8 per cent while A* grades are down by 0.5 per cent and C grades also down 0.4 per cent.

Since GCSEs were first set in 1986, rising grades each year may have been welcomed by the pupils receiving them, but have led to concerns about grade inflation. To address this, the exams regulator Ofqual has placed extra pressure on examiners as well as curbing the modular aspects of some exams. There are also accusations from teachers that English GCSE grades have been marked down in an effort to curb grade inflation.

Michael Gove has imposed more rigorous standards on schools, with four in ten pupils needing to gain five ‘good’ passes. Judging by today’s results, 250 secondary schools have failed to achieve this target. There are also figures from individual exam boards which suggest traditional subjects are making a comeback. Entries for biology, chemistry and physics and history all increased this year.

But many disparities remain across the secondary education system, which is currently undergoing a huge transformation. In this week’s podcast, Fraser Nelson and Neil O’Brien, director of the think tank Policy Exchange, discussed the many compounding factors that continue to affect pupils’ grades. You can hear the full discussion using the embedded player:


The first factor Fraser discussed is the effect of rich and poor locations, based on research done by Chris Cook in the Financial Times. Our leader in this week’s magazine explains this link:

‘Parents have long known about this link, which is why so many go to such lengths to rent property in more affluent catchment areas a year before their child is enrolled in school. But the full extent of England’s horribly unfair system was demonstrated recently in a study by the Financial Times. It plotted pupils’ wealth against their exam results, and found a near-perfect correlation. The richest can expect, on average, straight Bs in their GCSEs, while the poorest can expect straight Ds. Proof, if any were needed, that the comprehensive education system has become the greatest enemy of social mobility.

Neil presented some interesting statistics showing the effect poverty can have on results.

‘Poverty clearer matters a lot. For poor kids on free schools meals, and whose parents are on benefits, only 3 out of 10 of them will get 5 decent GCSEs including English and Maths. For other kids, twice as many will get good GCSEs’

Ethnicity is another factor too: 

‘Poor white boys are the lowest performing group in our school system, less than a quarter of them will get five decent GCSEs. Among equivalently poor Asian kids, more than 40 per cent will get five decent GCSEs. In equivalent poor Chinese kids, 60 per cent will get five decent GCSEs. This tells you something about the importance of culture.’

He also explains the male-female divide is as prevalent as ever:

‘When they start school at age 5, girls and boys are doing equivalently well. But by the time we get to GCSE, girls are 7 per cent more likely to get good GCSEs.The anti-education male culture obviously matters a a lot

And as Fraser suggests, the school itself can make a huge difference:

‘Schools matters a lot. Even in Chris Cook’s analysis, which is incredibility bleak in lots of way, about 15 per cent of schools are managing to get their poor pupils up to the national average. It can be done, it’s just not that many schools are doing it at the moment.’

This is the biggest issue facing the government — how to replicate these improvements across the country. Both Fraser and Neil said that pushing forward the academy programme and adding a profit incentive is the most effective way to address the factors above.

The concern is what happens at the general election. Fraser said he believes it is ‘more likely than not’ that David Cameron will not win in 2015. If this happens, will Labour have the nerve to stand up against the unions and pick up and run with Gove’s agenda?

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Show comments
  • AxeToGrind
  • David Lindsay

    People laughed when Arthur Scargill said that Margaret Thatcher had a hit list of a hundred pits. But he was right.

    Today, a few voices dare to say that Michael Gove has a hit list of hundreds of schools, whose GCSEs have been marked down in order to justify closing them.

    And people are laughing.


  • Irascible Old Git

    According to the Master of Wellington College, the biggest influence on this year’s grading of GCSE’s was the Education Secretary.

    Yet in television interviews this evening, Gove has denied having any influence whatsoever over exam results.

    Is the man merely bashful or thoroughly mendacious?

  • TomTom

    Free School Meals is such a red-herring. When everyone received Free School Meals Schools were much better and exams were harder. If everyone received Free School Meals again these terrible cases dredged up by social anthropologists would be reduced to miniscule proportions. Time to bring back Free School Meals and boost Exam Results !

    • Publius

      Clearly free school meals cause failure.

  • lloydj

    Could it be simply that the children born this year are very slightly less academic then in previous years? If the statistician cannot accept this how do they argue that children born in earlier years became progressively cleverer assuming a constant exam standard?

    • Arthur Seeley

      You could be right but as I understand it they, the examining board, were under instruction to have fewer A passes etc. That seems to be where the conflict lies and the standards were altered mid-academic year after the final run in had begun.and allowing no time to adjust’ Moving goalposts’ is the term to be used.
      A student s paper can be assessed to a set of given criteria and the meeting of those criteria can be quantified and a score given.
      There are two ways then that the figures and grades can be manipulated.
      One can move the grade boundaries higher or the whole range of scores can be fed into a bell curve and the curves area sliced into segments to allow a set fraction of each grade to be given. Either method is tantamount to over riding the criteria based assessment.

  • HFC

    Chris Cook of the FT likes to identify correlations but fails to understand that correlations are not causations.

  • HFC

    Chris Cook of the FT likes to identify correlations but fails to understand that correlations are not causations.

    • Ian Walker

      Exactly, but why let scientific rigour get in the way of a good polemic?

      Wealthier parents tend to be better educated themselves, so I expect there is a (completely unsurprising) correlation between parents’ education levels and their children.

      But that wouldn’t make for a good socialist diatribe, would it. No, let’s blame it all on ‘the rich’ for having the audacity to give a shit about their children’s education.

  • Robert_Eve

    Will Labour stand up against the unions? I’ll have to give that some deep thought!!

    • tele_machus

      Robert. It is not the Unions.
      It is the individual teachers who hate Gove.
      Because he does not actually care about the educational process and producing rounded individuals.
      He seems to think that the profit principle and financial management autonomy equals good education.
      What is clearly needed is a level playing field for rich and poor alike and until the drain of the best teachers into a system that teaches the rich elite in private schools is addressed there will be no way forward
      How to do this is the major challenge for the next government

      • james102

        Yes the evidence for a generation of well rounded
        individuals is all around us. We have much to thank this generation of teachers

        • Austin Barry

          One of the most depressing aspects of today’s various pupil interviews was the strange, querulous patois they emitted. I don’t really care how many wing-nut GCSE’s you’ve got, but if you speak like that you ain’t gownna bee imployed, innit bro. Surely, schools should teach elocution rather than allow pupils to sink into ebonic idiocy.

          • telemachus

            The very same kids will do Quuens English(or at least a Harry Estury Varian) when they see their grandmothers.
            The patois is cool on telly

  • MGR

    “The richest can expect, on average, straight Bs in their GCSEs, while the poorest can expect straight Ds. Proof, if any were needed, that the comprehensive education system has become the greatest enemy of social mobility.”
    It is not proof of anything unless the children’s results are compared with the equivalent results gained by their parents, after discounting for grade inflation. Of course the children of rich parents will achieve better results; they have inherited better brains. We need to know whether the ‘good’ schools are bringing out more or less of their potential than the ‘bad’ schools achieve for poor children.

    • Paul

      “Of course the children of rich parents will achieve better results; they have inherited better brains.”
      Can’t say I agree that intellect is hereditary, and it’s certainly not passed on because parents are rich – watch a certain programme set in Essex if you don’t believe me.

      • james102

        If it is not inherited how did it evolve?

        And we are discussing academic ability rather than general
        intelligence which seem to get confused.

      • james102

        If it is not inherited how did it evolve?

        And we are discussing academic ability rather than general
        intelligence which seem to get confused.

      • Fergus Pickering

        It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not. Intellect is partly hereditary, just as good looks and other things are. Think racehorses, old son.

    • UlyssesReturns

      What nonsense and your proof is non-existent. Neither of my parents, their siblings or forefathers had degrees and our family made church mice look afluent; and thank the Lord I did not inherit my dear mother’s brains. My numerous siblings and I share any number of BScs, MAs and MScs and most of us have achieved great success in: commerce, banking, education and the health service. Some of the thickest people I have met come from the moneyed set – the issue is not wealth, it is drive and ambition, both for ourselves and our children. If you are poor and want to succeed, the opportunities are there, to thing otherwise is too fall into the trap set by the likes of Blair, Brown, Milliband, Twigg, Balls and that arch-destroyer of children’s futures, Shirley WIlliams.

      • Terry

        My father left school at 14 in Northern Ireland. He didn’t have an exam to his name, or two pennies to rub together. But it didn’t stop him from coming to London in the late forties and starting a business that, when he sold it in his retirement, employed thousands of people. He ended up with so much money, he didn’t know what to do with it.

        • james102

          Academic ability is only one form of intelligence otherwise
          we could just hand the country over to Oxbridge dons and relax knowing
          everything would be fine.

    • james102

      The fallacy of proportionate outcomes again.

    • SusiePlummer

      I’m sure there is an element of that, although obviously it’s not a total correlation. That’s where schools need to foster all kinds of abilities, not just academic ones. Schools should be finding what kids can succeed at, and encourage them in it. Basic maths and English skills are obviously important, but there’s no point making a non-academic student sit through years of history/French/physics when they’re never going to understand or be interested. Politicians and teaching unions seem scared of saying that different people are good at different things. 

      But, I think the bigger issue is lack of ambition. Where whole families (even communities)  live on benefits for long periods of time, there is often little encouragement for children to change. 

      There needs to be a change in the benefits culture, to make people work for welfare, so students see not working isn’t an option, and also the benefits of having a job.  

    • Fergus Pickering

      Of course it could be that poor people are stupid. There is quite a lot of evidence for this, isn’t there? They waste their money on lottery tickets and terrible food. They get fat and ugly. They wear horrible clothes. You can add to the list.