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GCSE science results – what impact are new performance measures having? 26.08.16

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Thursday was results day for young people who sat GCSEs this year, with pass rates for top grades falling again. This included GCSE Science, which saw a 3.8% drop in pupils achieving an A*-C grade. GCSE Additional Science saw the same grades drop by 3.5%, in Physics they fell by 1.1%, in Chemistry by 0.9%, and in Biology by 0.4%.

After the results, comes the analysis, and there is much data from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) for interested observers to pore over. This includes a set of variability charts, showing how individual schools or colleges performed compared to previous years – showing whether they achieved higher or lower grades. The data came with some commentary on the GCSE results in English and Mathematics, which appear stable compared to previous years, but none for GCSE Science, which shows a worrying decline compared to the preceding years’ results (see chart above). In previous years, any decrease in results at some schools and colleges tended to be balanced out by better results at others. This year that hasn’t occurred in Science, which suggests problems across the board.

Reasons for this are still being debated, but one answer may be found in entry patterns changing due to a new accountability system – Progress 8, which focuses on pupils’ progress rather than just their exam results. Under Progress 8, Science BTECs are no longer counted in performance tables, so we can presume that some science students have shifted from BTECs to GCSEs. This could also explain the substantial increase in entries of pupils taking GCSE Science, which grew 22%, from 208,192 in 2015 to 254,964 this year.

Across the board pupils taking any of the science GCSEs declined slightly from a total of 5,277,604 in 2015 to 5,240,796 in 2016. However, certain subjects saw significant growth. GCSE Physics entries grew 4.6%, from 133,610 to 139,805 and in Biology entries rose 3.6%, from 139,199 to 144,148. In Additional Science the percentage of 16 year olds sitting the GCSE increased 11.3%, from 322,353 to 358,911 and in Chemistry entries grew by 5.7%, from 133,618 to 141,245.

The biggest increase saw a 76.4% rise in entries for computing, from 35,414 to over 62,500, but this could be explained by the decrease in the number of entries to GCSE ICT – from 111,934 to 84,120. What is more interesting is that computing is more heavily gender imbalanced than any other subject, with four boys choosing to study it for every one girl.

Quite how much of the changes to GCSE entry levels are down to the new measurement system is debatable. Progress 8 has a companion metric, Attainment 8, which records a school’s GCSE results and is calculated by translating grades into numbers. Moving into this new system – and from letters to numbers – will have its complexities, and we are bound to see some anomalies arise during transition. What is critical is that young people continue to be shown the benefits of studying STEM courses, and encouraged to find the right courses to suit them.

For those of you that still believe that exams are easier now than in your day, why not try this quiz from the Manchester Evening News to see if you could pass a current Science GCSE.

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at joe.meaney@aprilsixproof.com