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What they don’t want you to know about GCSEs


PSST! ‘Listen! Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Let me whisper in your ear.’ The Beatles got it right, it seems. Secrecy is what is needed. And not only in matters of the heart but when it comes to GCSE performance, too.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the annual GCSE results celebration ritual is a bit of a fake. The educational establishment has long wanted to keep secret what is actually going on. The government’s exam regulator boss may claim that ‘All our kids are brilliant’ but the truth is, they are not.

The Blob now wants to ensure that what is widely known in the teaching profession about the validity of GCSE results stays in the teaching profession and does not reach pupils or parents or the general public.

The Times has reported that ministers are being urged to scrap the so-called ‘EBacc’ or English Baccalaureate, introduced by Michael Gove a few years ago when he was education secretary. It provides a measure of school performance based on how many pupils gain ‘good passes’ in five key subjects – English, maths, a science, a foreign language and either history or geography.

The popular Schools Week publication, provider, it claims, of ‘in-depth, investigative education journalism’, is in the vanguard of the assault on EBacc. 

The director of the think tank EDSK (short for ‘education and skills’) has announced that ‘the worrying trends across almost every non-EBacc subject regarding GCSE entries and teacher numbers can no longer be ignored.’ 

The Blob’s argument is that non-EBacc subjects, especially ‘creative’ subjects, are being neglected because schools are focusing too much on the five EBacc GCSEs. I am the first to defend the status of these subjects but it should not depend on scrapping the EBacc.

Something else is at stake here. It is much less about a failure of some schools to teach non-EBacc subjects than a failure of many schools to rise to the challenge of successfully teaching those five EBacc core GCSEs.

The Blob would like to see EBacc information given protected status. They want performance in the key EBacc subjects to be made a national secret. Teachers, should, perhaps, be required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

So what is there to hide? Let me spill the beans for those in the dark, whilst it is still legal to so do and whilst the data remains in the public domain. The Times has already lifted the lid. Currently, 76 per cent of pupils fail to achieve a ‘good pass’ in the EBacc.

And what mark does a ‘good pass’ require? For maths in 2017 it was a score of 15 per cent and, last year, 20 per cent. Achieving an EBacc is not a great academic achievement. It is the standard mostly surpassed by primary school pupils in Singapore, Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and so on.

Am I exaggerating? Almost certainly not! If anything I am under-estimating the seriousness of the problem of educational performance in our schools. Keeping it a secret is not going to help. The government must resist calls from the Blob to scrap EBacc. We already have far too much window dressing when it comes to public examination results.

The deceit being perpetrated by the educational establishment will not be offset by EBacc alone but EBacc is all we have. Far better to be truthful and ashamed than to be secretive and celebratory.

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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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