A good pass – who are qualifications actually for?


One Bad Apple?

St Olave’s Grammar school in Orpington has reversed its decision to bar students from returning for the second year of their A-level courses if they failed to achieve the schools ‘stringent academic requirements’ at the end of the first year.     The climb down was forced on them through a combination of poor publicity, parent complaints and the accompanying threats of legal action.  Click the link to the Guardian online for more information on this story.

That this kind of thing goes on will surprise nobody who has any experience of the education system.   But we also see the anguish and damage caused to students by the pressure placed on them by education establishments desperate to achieve good grades to the point where they are willing to work against best interests of their students in pursuit of improved league position and positive OFSTED reports.

GCSE result may have kept improving, but do these indicate increasing long-term benefits for student, school or the country as a whole.   Should we look again at what it means to have a good pass?

A good pass?

What should we consider a good pass, or, to put it another way, who is the qualification for and what should the qualification tell them, and us,  about the student?

For employers, as well as,  FE/HE establishments and the student,  the qualification must fairly represent the level of skill attained.  At the same time it should also provide the student with something to aspire to, something that is truly able to demonstrate to them and others, that effort put into the study was worthwhile.   Here, a good pass would be one that reflected the student’s fullest achievement of their potential at that time, while a less than good pass would be a measure of the extent by which the student did not achieve it.  From an employer, FE/HE institution or student’s point of view,  a good pass is one that adequately reflects the current ability and potential of a candidate.  Importantly the student always remains the measure of it.

Testing the school, not the student

But this all changes when national qualifications, such as GCSEs and A-levels, are no longer used just to measure the student but make up a significant part of measuring the school.  At this point what is considered a ‘good pass,’ is no longer related to the ability or potential of the student but the arbitrary decisions of governments, civil servants,  regulating bodies and exam boards.  And because of the power and influence of these institutions, it is their definition of a ‘good pass’ that holds sway and affects the way schools teach and behave,  directly impacting the well being of their students.

Achieving the unachievable

The pressure exerted both psychologically and through increased workload on students to achieve what the government and the schools themselves consider a  ‘good pass’ has never been greater.  But while the number of those attaining ‘good grades’ have on average, continued to rise since the introduction of the league tables, other indicators may suggest something else might be going on.

  • On 6 December 2016, the BBC reported that according to the OECD PISA test, the UK lags behind in global school rankings with maths 27th in the world rankings, its lowest position since 2000 and English in  22nd.  Only science has shown recent improvement up to 15th place its highest position since 2006.     http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-38157811.


Close up of hand writing
The pressure of gaining a good pass in GCSEs may have led to 9% rise in calls to Child Line concerning stress in the year 2015/16

Time to remove the incentive?

2017 is the first time that final exams have been held testing the new 1-9 syllabus in English and Mathematics.  We are told they are more rigorous than the previous GCSE introduced in 2010.  They will be rolled out across the rest of the curriculum over the coming years.  Perhaps they will be better at measuring the real ability of the students taking them.  But while they continue also to be used as a way of ranking teaching establishments, a role they are not designed for,  many of these institutions will continue to find ways of gaming the system at the expense of their students.  Isn’t it time we removed their incentive to do so?

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