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What will voters make of a falling GCSE pass rate?

By Matthew Barrett
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The Telegraph reports this morning:

"Figures published by exam boards showed that 23.2% of papers were graded A* or A – a rise of 0.6% points in the last 12 months. Around three times as many pupils now gain the top grades compared with 1988 when the exams were first introduced. Some 69.8% of entries were awarded at least a C – the 23rd straight increase and up 0.8 percentage points on last year."

The "23rd straight increase". That's quite something. 

The gender gap between girls and boys is also a cause for concern. Today's Guardian reports "a record gap between the genders of 6.7 percentage points. Last year, the gap was six percentage points". The Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, told the BBC this morning that "we do have to try and reverse" the gap. That issue, however, is a long-term one, and probably not one that can be solved over the course of five years, or even a decade. 

Gove IDCCThe exam reforms proposed by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State of Education, however, do have advantages that can be tapped into in the nearer-term. The MP for South West Norfolk, Elizabeth Truss, who takes a very keen interest in education matters, also features in the Guardian, supporting Mr Gove's plans for reform:

"On the eve of the publication of GCSE results for 600,000 pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Elizabeth Truss has said all 16-year-olds – regardless of their ability – should take English, maths, at least two sciences, a foreign language and either history or geography. Michael Gove, the education secretary, has called this combination of subjects the English Baccalaureate, or Ebacc... Truss, MP for south-west Norfolk, has warned that leading competitors such as Germany, France, Canada and Japan, have already made Ebacc subjects compulsory at 16 and that Britain is "quickly falling behind". In the US, all these subjects are mandatory, apart from a foreign language."

Chris Skidmore, the Member for Kingswood, who is also a historian, obtained alarming figures from the Department for Education showing that 159 schools failed to enter a single pupil for a history exam last summer. Mr Skidmore is quoted in the Telegraph deploring this retreat from traditional education: 

"It is alarming that the number of pupils taking History declined in this way under Labour, with comprehensive schools falling further behind and the most disadvantaged areas suffering the most. Every pupil should have the opportunity to study history at school, and it is simply astounding that in 159 schools that chance is being denied them."

A choice of history or geography would be one of the required components of Mr Gove's EBacc.

The Daily Mail's editorial today suggests that Mr Gove's instructions to exam boards - to be more strict in their marking - will mean that the GCSE (and A-level) pass rates will actually fall in the coming years. That would bring a welcome touch of reality to the education system - and therefore the jobs market, too. As the Mail puts it:

"While a daunting prospect for pupils, such a development would be positive news for colleges and employers, who currently find it near impossible to  differentiate between the battalions of school-leavers with identical A* grades."

But one question arises: what would parents - and therefore voters - think of a drop in GCSE pass rates? Would it be heralded as a sign of success, or would it be used to suggest education standards are getting worse under the Coalition? 


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