How have #GCSEs2020 affected teachers and students? CfEY’s GCSEs exams seminar


21st August 2020

At the Centre for Education and Youth’s #GCSEs2020 seminar, we discussed how teachers and pupils have been affected by this year’s GCSE results.

What’s happened?

Preparing for our GCSE seminar today was an interesting challenge. After the fiasco surrounding last week’s A-level results and Ofqual’s ‘algoshambles’, GCSE students were told they would receive the highest of their Centre Assessment Grade (CAG) or the grade that Ofqual’s moderation process awarded them, in each of their subjects.

This U-turn has been met with relief by many teachers and young people.

Overall, this year’s results are better than last year’s, with 78.8% of entries from 16-year-olds in England receiving a grade 4 or above, compared to 69.9% in 2019. The percentage of young people achieving a ‘strong pass’ (a grade 5 or above) has risen to 61.5%, up from 53.5% last year.

However, improvements in results aren’t equally distributed across subjects. Results in subjects with lower numbers of pupil entries such as PE and engineering have increased more than in larger subjects, such as English literature and maths.

Despite a generally brighter picture this week, concerns remain about how 2020’s results have been handled. At our A-levels seminar last week, teachers and school leaders described their loss of trust in the government and in Ofqual. Furthermore, it remains unclear how this year’s results will impact on future cohorts.

Consequently, there was a lot for our panel of school leaders and students to discuss, and we were delighted to welcome:

  • Claire Price – Principal, RSA Academy Tipton
  • David Thomas – Principal, Jane Austen College
  • Emma Wijnberg – Deputy Headteacher, Sydenham School
  • Aretha Banton – Co-Founder, Mindful Equity UK
  • Stephen Tierney – Chair, Headteachers Roundtable

We also welcomed two students, Reyes Banton and Hanifah Smith, who received their GCSE results yesterday.

You can view the full discussion here, a summary the main points, here, and our live Tweet stream, here.

Four key themes emerged during the seminar:

1. Students have shown immense resilience

Young people are often dismissed as not having enough resilience. The exams fiasco and wider pandemic have shown how utterly false this belief is. David Thomas said pupils at his school have “been phenomenal” in how they’ve coped with the disruption to their exams – let alone their wider lives – and said this should be celebrated:

Of course, and as Hanifah pointed out, “we haven’t had a choice”. While grappling with learning remotely, many young people have cared for their family and friends. However, both she and Reyes feel as though results day has given them ‘closure’, and feel upbeat about starting year 12.

2. We can do things differently

We’re at a fork in the road, and have a choice to make about whether exams continue ‘as was’ or whether we re-examine (no pun intended) the purpose of GCSEs.

The world hasn’t stopped turning simply because pupils received Centre Assessment Grades. Stephen Tierney added that exams were never perfect to begin with. However, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: David Thomas explained exams can be made fairer by ensuring all pupils enter exams on as close to a level playing field as possible, but shouldn’t be scrapped altogether.

Claire Price posed the million-dollar question: What are exams for?  Are they for recognising 11 years of formal education and celebrating pupils’ achievements, or for measuring school and system performance? (Incidentally, these are questions CfEY explores in its report, Testing the Water).

In light of the results debacle in 2020, how can we do things differently? What's the role of exams within our education system? Share on X

3. Exams results have highlighted broader issues in the education system

The GCSE and A-levels results have exposed broader issues within the education system.

Lines of communication between the Department for Education, Ofqual and schools have not been good enough. Communication has been at different points lacking, misleading and ambiguous, and Aretha Banton stressed that this had been especially challenging for school leaders trying simultaneously to keep up to date while also preparing their schools to re-open. Panellists felt this was an issue before Covid struck, but has been exacerbated during lockdown and multiple, last-minute) U-turns.

The situation has also revealed how inconsistent pupils’ access is to online and remote learning. Different schools have put differing levels of support in place during lockdown. Equally, children in different families have received differing levels of support at home (something that also came up in CfEY’s Covid Roundtable).

If we find ourselves in this position again, panellists were unequivocal: more must be done to give all pupils adequate support.

4. Some pupils are particularly at risk of falling further behind

As schools re-open, some pupils may be particularly in need of additional support. The panel suggested these groups would include pupils:

  • Entering years 11 and 13
  • Transitioning from secondary school into sixth form or college
  • Entering vocational pathways
  • With forms of special educational needs and disabilities
  • Experiencing bereavement and grief

Where next?

Our seminar highlighted a number of ways forward.

Firstly, there’s no time like the present: Claire and Aretha both stressed that schools must crack on and get support in place as they re-open, especially for pupils who engaged less in remote learning.

In the face of uncertainty about BTEC results, sixth forms and colleges should make offers using students’ other grades, and start from the assumption that pupils are capable of fulfilling their potential as indicated by their grade sheets.

Earlier, clearer communication is needed from government and Ofqual, involving greater and more public consultation with teachers about decisions affecting schools and pupils.

The Department for Education should provide funding to feed children eligible for free school meals during the holidays.

You can view the full discussion here, a summary the main points, here, and our live Tweet stream, here.