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Chris McGovern: Blindly praising GCSE results hides the alarming truth


What does the latest annual batch of information about GCSE results really mean? The benchmark pass rate of five A* including English and maths, is up from 56.6 per cent to 57.1 per cent. The number of schools failing to reach the ‘floor standard’ of 40 per cent passes at this level is stable at 312. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, has congratulated schools on so successfully implementing the Government’s reforms “leading to higher standards and transforming young people’s life chances”. He added: “Today’s results show how far we have come in raising standards…”.

As with so much in education, however, little is ever quite what is seems. Behind the headline ‘success’ story lies reality. First of all, the quality of the GCSE exams being measured is so sub-standard that they have had to be replaced by a more rigorous ‘Mark 2’ version. Teaching for some of these new GCSEs started last September.

Secondly, the gender gap in attainment continues to be alarming. Only 52.5 per cent of boys hit the five passes benchmark as opposed to 61.8 per cent of girls. Similarly, only 65.9 per cent of boys made the expected level of progress compared to 76.5 per cent of girls.

Thirdly, and sadly, a majority of children from the most underprivileged backgrounds, those who attract extra funding in the form of the so-called ‘pupil premium’, are languishing on an educational death row leading to unemployment and unemployability. Only 36.7 per cent of them reach the five GCSEs benchmark as against 64.7 per cent of other pupils.

Fourthly, and most telling of all, is that only 24.3 per cent of all GCSE candidates (19.5 per cent boys and 29.3 per cent girls) achieved the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), Michael Gove’s litmus test for academic attainment. In order to achieve the EBacc a candidate’s five GCSE ‘passes’ have to include a science, a foreign language and either history or geography, in addition to English and maths. This combination of core subjects is the real benchmark of academic attainment. The fact that, after almost 30 years of educational ‘improvement’ reform, over three quarters of young people are failing to achieve passes in five core subjects it is the most damning of indictments.

In my capacity as Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, I often receive letters and emails from distraught parents, suffering from stress and anxiety about the poor quality of education across the UK. Increasingly, immigrant parents are, also, writing to me. Here is one I received a few days ago:

“State school standards are rubbish! My [9 year-old] daughter is four years ahead for her age and hardly knows any grammar… never heard of most. 

Ethnic minority kids perform much better esp poor… because firstly most of us poor here come from middle class families at home and our state schools are far harder so we freak out when we see how superficial the curriculum is here and how little homework there is compared to having homework every day in several subjects in our native countries. That is the talk in school grounds, believe me. Eastern European, Latin American, Asian, African parents regularly talk about it. We are in shock though I still fell for the highest praise heaped on my kids by the school and feel so guilty now. Feel very stupid and irresponsible.”

As Schools Minister, Nick Gibb has been much better than most of his predecessors. Certainly, his heart is in the right place. However, his current lauding of GCSE results is as embarrassing as it is delusional. I feel sorry for him. He has been put in the position of defending the indefensible through no fault of his own.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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