X Close

Institute of Education Blog

Home

Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education

Menu

GCSE results: vocational subjects are on the up

Blog Editor, IOE Digital21 August 2014

Tina Isaacs

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Despite a number of dire warnings, overall GCSE results have not been very volatile. Across the country, the number of students getting A* to C grades has increased slightly, by 0.7% points. On the basis of past performance, students who would have received an A or a C grade in 2013, should have received that A or C this year too. But there are some marked subject differences, as well as developments in the number of teenagers taking vocational and computing subjects.
We have already had a relatively boring set of A level results this summer. On the whole, A Level grades were similar to last year’s, with some minor fluctuations, most notably in an increase of students who got A* grade.
Please don’t misunderstand me when I say boring: when it comes to exams, this is a good thing. It reassures us that most students got the grades they deserved. Of course, there will always be exceptions – measurement error in examinations, no matter what the politicians tell us, is inevitable and will always be with us.
For the GCSEs, on a subject-by-subject basis there were notable differences. The A* to C pass rate for English was down 1.9% points, while in mathematics it was up 4.8% points and 6% points in science.

CC BY-ND

Overall, the number of exam entries was down by over 200,000, from 5.4m in 2013 to 5.2m in 2014, largely due to a 39% drop in the number of entries for Year 10 students. But even these changes are less dramatic than it might seem.

Rise in vocational subjects

Two points I have noted that probably will not get much attention were the increase in the take-up of applied (vocational) GCSEs as well as a dramatic increase in computing and ICT GCSEs, admittedly from a low base.

CC BY-ND

Business, engineering, health and social care, media studies, hospitality and catering, and leisure and tourism are all on the increase. Some subjects, such as engineering and social care have seen the number of A* to C students increase, while others including leisure and tourism and business studies, have seen a decrease.
As for computing – the number of entries jumped almost fourfold to 16,773 this year. However, there was a slight dip in the numbers of students getting A* to C – down from 68.4% in 2013 to 65.5% this year. Computing now counts as a science, and therefore as one of the subjects in the English Baccalureate, a performance measure of five core subjects now being used in school rankings. The number of ICT entries was also up 40% to 96,811.
Many vocational qualifications are no longer counted as equivalent to GCSEs in this year’s school performance tables, following on from recommendations in Alison Wolf’s 2011 review of vocational qualifications. Those qualifications that are able to be counted now only attract the points-equivalent of one GCSE, when in the past some counted for more. This has discouraged schools from entering students for those qualifications.
But it seems this year’s results show signs that some schools are shifting some of their students into applied GCSEs. This could possibly be in anticipation of counting at least some of the qualification results toward the “best eight” qualifications that will now be the basis of new performance tables, due to be introduced in 2016.

Impact of decline in early entry

Students in England will have taken all of their examinations at the end of their two-year GCSE course because of the government’s insistence on linear qualifications.
For English GCSEs, speaking and listening is now graded separately and does not count in the overall results. Many students in the past have done better in this teacher-marked element than in reading and writing – just think about how verbally articulate most teenagers are and you can see why. English is now 60% externally assessed through examination papers whereas last year it was 40%.
And changes to the way performance tables are structured now mean that only a student’s first attempt at an examination is counted toward the school’s results. Many schools have ceased to enter 15-year-old Year 10 students early for the examinations, resulting in 300,000 fewer early entries this year.
Those schools that made little use of early entry and resits will on the whole have stable or perhaps even better results than last year. For those that made wide use of these practices, the picture could be mixed. Multiple re-sits can just help those students on the border between grade C and grade D to get the higher grade – boosting school results. But taking a qualification at age 16 rather than 15 could mean that students do better because they’ve studied longer and are more mature, pushing results up.
Read the original article.

Yes, they’re young and inexperienced. But Teach First participants have the right stuff

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 September 2013

Rebecca Allen
Today, Jay Allnutt and I published a new piece of analysis (PDF) showing that schools taking on Teach First participants have achieved gains in their GCSE results as a result of the programme. Our analysis tracks the performance of these schools in the first three years after they join the programme and compares them to changes in progress at a set of schools that look identical, except for their Teach First participation in that year.
We make sure this comparison set of schools have the same pupil demographic profile, the same prior levels and trends in GCSE performance, are in the same region of England and are all schools who will choose to join Teach First at some point in the future (formally this is known as a matched difference-in-differences panel estimation). Overall, school-wide gains in GCSE results are in the order of an improvement of about one grade in one of a pupil’s best eight subjects. This estimate is a fraction of the size claimed by the only other quantitative evaluation by Muijs et al (PDF), but is still large enough to be of value to schools.
Like many, until I wrote this research I was sceptical that Teach First participants could possibly have any sort of transformative effect on schools. The academic research tells us that we don’t know much about what good teachers look like before they join the profession. We just know they are likely to be relatively ineffective in their first year of teaching, compared to their second and subsequent years. So, to my mind, setting up a scheme that legitimises exit from the profession after just two years seemed like lunacy.
Furthermore, to someone who trained to become a teacher for a whole year and still found my first year in the classroom extremely exhausting and challenging, it did seem rather reckless to place young graduates into challenging classrooms with so little time to prepare.
But on reflection, I now think Teach First provides important lessons for recruitment to the teaching profession as a whole.
I believe Teach First reminds us of the importance of selecting the right teachers at the outset
Even in the depths of recession in 2010 there were just 3 applicants for each place on a traditional graduate training course (PGCE, PGDE and GTP). By contrast, at the same time Teach First was processing about eight applications for every place. Without needing to make claims about the relative qualities of the respective pools of applicants, it is easy to see how Teach First is able recruit an intake with greater potential, provided their sifting process can do a reasonable job of spotting those with the drive, resilience and stamina needed to succeed in the classroom.
Recent academic papers from the US explain that getting this initial selection of teachers right is critical because, whilst a first year novice teacher is less effective than they will be in year two, the improvement in teaching quality gained through experience is actually relatively modest compared to the very wide variation in teacher quality at the outset. Furthermore, those who are weak teachers in year one improve their practice at a slower rate than others, thus widening gaps in effectiveness in years two, three and four.
Giving graduates an exit path after two years may be an important recruitment device
It is hard to really know whether you’ll love teaching before you try it. The great pleasures of teaching are rather strange compared to other graduate jobs and many 21 year old graduates will have had little contact with young children in recent years. Given this, while many graduates hesitate about training to join the teaching profession (forever?), they may feel more able to join a scheme with a straightforward exit route after two years. If they find they need to (which most don’t), they can walk away with a sense of completion rather than as a ‘failure’ or ‘drop-out’. And the greatest success of Teach First takes place when a graduate who fully intended to move onto a job in the City or in Law completes their two years and finds they are unable to rip themselves away from the delight and gratification of educating the next generation.

“The impact of hiring Teach First participants on school and departmental performance: matched difference-in-differences and pupil fixed effects estimation”, by Rebecca Allen and Jay Allnutt was presented to the annual BERA conference today. Part of the analysis in the paper is based upon Jay Allnutt’s MSc dissertation, which was written whilst he was a secondary school teacher in London. He now works for Teach First. Teach First did not fund the research.