Commission questions whether English Language GCSE is fit for purpose

15 March 2019

A Commission of Enquiry into the ‘Forgotten Third’ of pupils who fail to achieve at least a Grade 4 ‘standard pass’ in GCSE English and maths has questioned whether the current English Language qualification is fit for purpose.

The Commission, established by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and chaired by renowned educationalist Roy Blatchford, publishes its interim report today at ASCL’s annual conference in Birmingham.

The report outlines the key questions being investigated by the Commission including the nature of the current English Language GCSE and why parts of the examination are rooted in literary analysis.

It says: “The Commission has looked in detail at what the current English Language syllabuses are examining, and is minded to suggest that the content has moved away from the original design of GCSE.”

English Language was reformed in 2015 and the conditions set out by Ofqual require exam boards to assess students on unseen texts from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. These must include a literary fiction text and a literary non-fiction text.1

The Commission’s concern is that this is not an assessment of everyday skills and competency in written and spoken English and that many young people are therefore missing out on the opportunity to gain a qualification which demonstrates those skills.

The Commission raises the idea of introducing a National Certificate of Competence. It says: “Feedback to the Commission from employers and business indicates there is a serious lack of understanding about what is actually being tested in a GCSE English Language examination …Is there an argument for replacing GCSE English Language with some kind of National Certificate which values the achievements in speaking, listening, reading and writing of all 16-year-olds, at the conclusion of their 12 years of compulsory schooling?”

The Commission is tasked with how to improve the prospects of the ‘Forgotten Third’ of students who each year in England fail to achieve at least a Grade 4 standard pass in English and maths. This is the minimum grade required for many further and higher education courses, and by many employers. Yet 187,000 16-year-olds did not achieve at least this grade in English and maths in 2018.

A system called ‘comparable outcomes’ roughly establishes the percentage of pupils achieving the respective grades at GCSE by looking at what cohorts of similar ability have achieved in the past, and this means that around a third fall below the Grade 4 standard, year in and year out.

The Commission also questions whether students should continue to have to resit English and maths GCSEs post-16, which is currently a government requirement, given that the rate achieving the standard pass is low. Last summer the percentage of post-16 students achieving at least a Grade 4 in English was 29.7 per cent and in maths it was 18.2 per cent.2

“There is strong emerging evidence from many stakeholders across England that the compulsory resitting of GCSE English (and mathematics) is not working – and indeed is a significant waste of student potential and teachers’ resources,” says the report.

Roy Blatchford said: “We are not trying to undermine the value of the current English Language qualification for the many young people who do well in this exam and who deserve great credit. Our question is whether it is really an examination of written and spoken English skills or an extension of English Literature.

"Do we need a qualification which instead gives every pupil a chance to demonstrate that they are able to speak and write English to a degree of competency valued by employers - something which every pupil can be proud of at the end of 12 years of schooling?

“It cannot be right that in the current exam system we have so many young people leaving secondary school each year without qualifications in English and maths at a level which is seen as a passport to onward study and employment, and that the way the exam system works means that one third of children will always fall below this bar.”

The Commission is now consulting school and college leaders, and other stakeholders, for their views and it will publish its final report in June.

1 GCSE (9 to 1) subject-level conditions and requirements for English language. Ofqual. 27 July 2015.

2 16 to 18 GCSE English and maths pass rates. Association of Colleges. 23 August 2018