Results Day

23 Aug

Yesterday was the 6th GCSE/A Level result day since I started working for NUT Cymru. You can almost set your clock by the media coverage. Standard photo of girls, usually with blonde hair, jumping for joy with their results on the front page of newspapers; TV coverage of some pupils opening their results to the inevitable straight A grades; stock questions on “are teachers letting children down” or “are the exams too easy” depending on an increase/decrease in the pass rate. This BBC article is quite good at highlighting the language of results day, for which I am sure I am equally guilty of employing.

Getting back to yesterday, three things that stood out with regards to this year’s GCSE results:

Narrowing the gap with England

It has been noted that the gap in attainment of top grades between Wales and England has narrowed. In Wales the percentage of those gaining A*-A remained at 2012 levels of 19.2%. Due to a decline elsewhere the gap with rest of UK narrowed, from 3.2% in 2012 to 2.1.

On the positive while results have dropped in England we can take heart in Wales that we have kept a consistency in our achievements and that pupils reaching the highest standards have not failed to repeat the great results of 2012.

Now, I’ve never been one to set the standard of our education system by its comparison with England, however tempting that can be. Our education systems are increasingly diverging under devolution and in the very near future will be almost unrecognisable from one another. By any indicator is it becoming more and more complex to compare the two.

That said, I certainly don’t think that narrowing the gap as a result of a decline across the border is worth celebrating. We should certainly welcome the success of achievement in Wales, and as stated the fact that we have shown a consistency in results while the rest of the Uk have not is something of a positive, but we want to narrow the gap by our own merits.

Results in Core Subjects

This has possibly been the focal point of the GCSE results in Wales. Most news outlets lead with this as their main reports yesterday, perhaps rightfully so.

The tale of the tape was that English A*-C grades were down from 60.9% in 2012 to 59.6%; Maths A*-C grades down from 55.5% in 2012 to 52.8% while the biggest drop came in Science where A*-C grades fell from 57.3% in 2012 to 51.2%.

On the face of it this could be alarming. Wales is seeing a decline in standards in the core subjects. However the reality is very different. There are a combination of factors that have contributed to these results.

Firstly, there has been an increase in the number of 15 year olds that have sat the exams early. This has played a significant role in depressing pass rates. The poorer performance of young entrants relative to the appropriate GCSE age group, and the increase in their numbers, has ensured a lower overall success rate. Secondly, but equally importantly, is that there has been an active decision to both make the exams harder and to mark them more harshly. This has, as the WJEC reported to BBC Radio Wales on results day, had the consequence of making the A*-C grade far more difficult to achieve in the core subjects. Knowing this, it is therefore completely expected that results should be down.

What is most important with this in mind is that we do not simply compare and contrast core subject results this year with those of previous years. To do so would be misleading. We may find, and I would argue it is very likely the case, that individual pupil performance in these subjects has not seen a great, if any, change over the course of the past year. Had the exams in 2013 been taken and evaluated on the same standard as those in 2012 for example who is to say the pass rate would not have seen an improvement.

This year’s core subject results should therefore be seen in isolation and judged on their individual merits, establishing a new baseline (assuming future exams take the same approach) rather than being compared to previous outcomes.

Overall Pass rates

The overall pass rate in Wales remained at the same level in 2013 as it was in 2012. (98.7%). While the A*-C pass rate fell very slightly by 0.1% to 65.7%. These are figures that we can be proud of and show that pupils in Wales are achieving high standards in their qualifications.

However, I think there’s a case to be especially pleased with such a small percentage drop in A*-C when the above factors regarding core subjects are taken into account. For an almost negligible pass rate decline to have been achieved when English, Maths and Science saw a -0.5%, -2.7% and -6.1% decrease respectively as a result of a combination of externally imposed factors, is actually a quite remarkable achievement and shows how well the performances across other subjects has been.

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