Richard Garner: An unfair crackdown on grades that hurts pupils and headteachers

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At first sight, a small (0.4 percentage point) drop in the A* to C-grade pass rate at GCSE is not something anyone should lose sleep about. That is especially so since we have had 24 years of successive rises since the qualification was first sat in 1988.

Indeed, a substantial chunk of the fall is down to the fact that the GCSE science exam has been made harder after concerns expressed by Ofqual, the exams regulator, that it was not really stretching pupils.

All well and good, but the difficulty arises with the drop in English results where grade boundaries were changed by as much as 10 percentage points in at least one case, almost at the last minute. (It was as a result of the new specification for English appearing to produce unexpectedly high results among candidates who sat the exam in winter – a group usually weaker in the subject than the summer cohort.)

The trouble is that so much rides on this pass rate: five A* to C-grade passes including maths and English is the yardstick which is used to measure schools' performance and determine whether a school is failing and needs to be closed or taken over by an academy sponsor.

It is even more important than that, though. A C-grade pass is essential in many schools throughout the country for determining whether a pupil can go on to pursue the subject to A-level.

In an 11-to-18 school, the head can relax the rules and let the pupil in – taking account that the pupil may have suffered as a result of being a "guinea pig" in the first year of a new syllabus (something exam boards routinely did before this new age of austerity and "comparable outcomes", i.e exam results should be roughly the same as last year).

It becomes a different kettle of fish in an 11-to-16 school where a sixth-form college or other institution will have no knowledge of what the pupil had been expected to achieve.

The current situation is unfair because it appears to penalise those who took the exam in the summer compared with those in the winter.

As a result, Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, should certainly be wary of marching in and declaring schools whose GCSE results in English are lower to be failing. Mr Gove's department should also be wary of using the thumbscrews to persuade them to become academies.

A more detailed report from the exam boards on what happened and why is essential to clear the air.

Case studies...

"I got my grades studying in a portable classroom. I'm over the moon"

Alice Norris, 16, Kings Langley school in Hertfordshire

"I've got six Bs, four Cs and a distinction-star in performing arts, which is equivalent to two A*s. That's dance, acting singing – a bit of everything. A bit like Lea Michele off Glee – that's me. You'll see me singing and dancing on the tables in a minute. I'm over the moon. You see other schools with dance studios and mirrors and we've got none of that. I got those grades studying in a portable classroom. But it brings us closer together. I know I didn't get the As and A*s, but I knew I wouldn't be able to get them. I got a C in maths, which is an important one to get. I want to stay here for sixth form and do drama and then go to Italia Conti or the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts later on. It'd be a dream to go there."

"I got an A* in maths even though I didn't finish the paper"

Alfie Whitbread 16, Kings Langley school in Hertfordshire

"I didn't do too bad. I suppose I did really well, but I'm just disappointed with one or two grades. I got six A*s, four As and a B in French, but I could see that coming. I got an A* in maths even though I didn't finish the paper – and I want to do further maths next year so that was the grade I had to get. It is a comprehensive, but it is quite competitive, especially in certain subjects. Music is what I want to do as a career, which is why I'm disappointed in an A. But hopefully I'll still be able to get into a good university."

"The only English I knew I learned from cartoons at home. I found it hard"

Farhart Zaheri, 16, Uxbridge High School in Middlesex

I did well, I think. I got A*s, As and Bs, so I think I will come back to do science here in sixth form.

I am Dutch, that is my first language. I moved here from Holland aged nine, so I was pretty entrenched in Dutch by that point.

The only English I knew I learned from cartoons at home. I found it hard with the language barrier. I had to do it by myself, I didn't get any extra tuition on it. But I learned it eventually.

I see it as more of an achievement to have got good grades in English, even though it is not my first language. I know a lot of people are asking for them because of the news that came out but I have not decided if I will ask for a remark yet. It may be worth it, though."

"I thought my literature results were a bit strange. I got A*s in other modules"

Sofia Thawabalalingan, 16, Uxbridge High School in Middlesex

"I came here in 2006, speaking only a little bit of English, which I learned at school in Germany, where I was born. I only had the basics but I have just got my results and I got all A*s, As and Bs, including As in English.

At first, I got a lot of help from the school to integrate into my year and into the UK. I didn't feel left behind because there were a lot of people in this school who were in the same position as me.

When I opened the envelope. I thought my literature results were a bit strange. I got A*s in my other modules and a C in there, which held me back. I did wonder if I had been caught up in the marking issue I read about. I want to get through my A-Levels and then go to university to study cardiology."

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