Exams change but we continue to fail the non-academic

Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week reports in The Guardian.  Here’s an unlikely sentence: in 2012, Michael Gove was right about something. I say this as a former teacher who, at the time, was dealing with his terrible ideas on a daily basis. But, if he’d managed to pull it off, the faff over GCSE results this week would have been very different.

On Thursday more than half a million children got their GCSE results. That’s the equivalent of every person in Sheffield receiving an envelope one morning telling them if they are a “pass” or a “fail”. That may sound harsh, but under the new regime, introduced last week, children are split into “strong” passers, “standard” passers and a group of children with such low grades that politicians dare not speak about them in public, but presumably call them “sub-standard” in their internal emails.

It was not supposed to be like this. If all had gone to Gove’s original plan, most children would have received grades for taking whiz-bang “more rigorous” exams, while some children would have received grades for a smaller version of the GCSE – maybe called a GCSE “half-certificate”.

Unfortunately, all did not go to plan. What happened?

Let’s rewind. Back in 2012, Gove was concerned by a problem that most politicians wilfully ignore. Every year a small percentage of children gain nothing more than a handful of E-G grades. These are pretty useless for moving on to college, jobs or apprenticeships (most want D grades as a minimum). Schools can predict who these children are, even before they start their GCSE course at age 14. The guesses are not always bang on, and schools avoid telling children that they are expected to do badly, but if you ask a headteacher to be brutally honest, they can point you to these kids with alarming accuracy.

Hence, Gove’s not-stupid idea was to make GCSEs a bit harder for most kids: add an extra grade at the top (a sort of A**), while giving children at the bottom an alternative exam. Instead of bamboozling an E-grade pupil by dragging them through the entire maths GCSE curriculum, teachers would teach half the content to a low-attaining child so they could understand it at a deeper level, which was more akin to what standard employers wanted.

So far, so credible. And then, the Daily Mail happened. “Return of the O-level: Gove plans to scrap dumbed-down GCSEs”, screamed the front page one sunny day in June. Immediately, the Liberal Democrats went into incensed overdrive. Because it was 2012, this mattered. Nick Clegg sprung up on telly, saying he would block the change. No one wanted a return to the days when bright kids could access one type of exam and froze out the others, he said. A fair point, but not what was actually being suggested. Still, a battle ensued, and Gove’s idea – which spiralled into something remarkably odd over the coming months – was on the ropes.

Read the full article Exams change but we continue to fail the non-academic

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Exams, Further Education and Secondary.


  1. The exams change but the stakes don’t and we continue to create a learning environment that does not suit a significant number of students (academic or not).

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