Unions comment on Sutton Trust report

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The new GCSE system is widening the gap between rich and poor students, says report

The new GCSE system in England is in danger of “further disadvantaging the disadvantaged”, a report by the Sutton Trust found.

The study says grades for disadvantaged pupils fell slightly, compared to their peers, by just over a quarter of a grade across nine subjects. These pupils were also less likely to get a 9 grade – with 1% achieving this compared to 5% of wealthier children.

The report – Making the Grade, by Professor Simon Burgess from Bristol University and Dave Thomson from FFT Education Datalab – assesses data from pupils at state-funded schools from 2016 to 2018.

Commenting on research by the Sutton Trust on the impact of GCSE reforms, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The fact that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates has widened since the introduction of new, tougher GCSEs is a terrible indictment of these reforms. The government was obsessed with the idea of providing harder GCSEs and a new grading system which stretches and differentiates between the most able students. But the issue that we really need to address is how to better serve students who face the greatest level of challenge. The new GCSE system does the exact opposite by making their lives even more difficult.

“The full extent of the impact on these students is masked by the system of ‘comparable outcomes’ which keeps results broadly stable from one year to the next. This is why the impact on the attainment gap has been relatively small. The reality is that the students who struggle the most – many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds – have a very poor experience of the new GCSEs and leave school feeling demoralised about their prospects for onward progression to courses and careers. As the Sutton Trust points out, they may also lose out as a result of greater differentiation at the top end of the ability scale if employers or universities focus on those achieving top marks.

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“We are calling for an overhaul of GCSEs which improves the prospects of the forgotten third of students who currently fall short of achieving at least a Grade 4 ‘standard pass’ in GCSE English and maths. New ‘passport’ qualifications should be introduced in English, and in time maths, which all students would take at the point of readiness between the ages of 15 and 19. In the longer term, we must look at whether such high-stakes exams as GCSEs are appropriate in a system where young people continue in education or training until the age of 18.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“It is absolutely not surprising that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others has widened as a result of the government’s GCSE reforms.

“These reforms were unplanned, had no meaningful consultation with teachers and no proper lead-in time. The exams now cover an unmanageable amount of content for many students, and unlike in real life the students have to sit them once-and-for-all at the end of the course. Both these issues are causing real problems.

“It is at the door of the Government that whilst under the previous system 2% of disadvantaged pupils achieved the top grade (of A*), it is now just 1% that achieve a grade 9. The Sutton Trust is right to say that this may have negative impacts on these students when they are applying for university places.

“A survey of National Education Union members found that 73% thought that pupil mental health was worse due to the new GCSE reforms and 64% said the reformed courses did not reflect students’ abilities as accurately.

“We need to see a system in place that plays to all pupils’ strengths to ensure they get the qualifications they deserve.”

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