One of the biggest blockbusters this Summer is a Cardiff Bay, Belfast and Whitehall production.
The blockbuster is exam results.
A lot was new in the exams sat this year and a lot will be new in the results. And a lot of what’s new isn’t the same in Wales, Northern Ireland and England.
This August, we’ll have the first award of new GCSEs, AS and A level qualifications, as well as the new Welsh Baccalaureate at 14-16 year old and Advanced level.
This is high-stakes stuff.
Hundreds of thousands of candidates, more than a million answer sheets, thousands of markers, and hundreds of schools anxious to see if they have got it all right for their pupils (and knowing that failure has consequences for both school and pupil).
Adding to the drama, everybody has been told well in advance that results days are 17 August for A level and 24 August for GCSE.
A lot of change, most of it all at once, and it all comes down to issuing results accurately on one day, specified many months ago.
Change in Wales, in Northern Ireland, in England. But not the same changes.
At A level, students in England have been following a linear model – with all exams held at the end of the course. In Wales, the modular model – including AS levels – has continued with exams spaced throughout the course. This Summer we will see the first results that may indicate how the different models affect performance.
Students in Wales are taking for the first time reformed GCSE qualifications in English Language, Welsh Language, English Literature and Welsh Literature. Also, this is only the second opportunity to enter students for the reformed maths qualifications; GCSE Mathematics and GCSE Mathematics – Numeracy.
A big difference between Wales and England is that England is introducing a new grading system for GCSEs. This will see GCSEs graded as 1-9, with 9 being the highest. What was known as a C – the bottom level ‘pass’ – will start at 4, with 5 being a strong Grade C.
England is introducing this new grading system so that it can better reflect the performance of students in what are, it is said, more rigorous and more challenging GCSEs.
This grading system starts this summer with English Language, English Literature and Maths. Other GCSEs will follow. Candidates in England will get a mix of letter and number grades during the 3 years it will take to apply the new system to all GCSEs.
Wales and Northern Ireland are sticking to the A* – G grading for GCSEs.
England will have nine grades, Wales and Northern Ireland only 8.
It will not be easy to make a direct comparison between grades issued in Wales and Northern Ireland and the new number grade results in England.
This popular Home Nations game is cancelled.
That said, the official independent agency responsible for marking and grading in Wales, Qualifications Wales, readily acknowledge that the new GCSEs and Welsh Baccalaureate in Wales are meant to be more challenging, just like the new qualifications in England. They have warned schools to be prepared for this new rigour to affect results.
It would be strange if more challenging examinations did not have any effect on results.
Of course, it would be very unfair on students that are the very first to sit new qualifications if the newness of the exams was a factor in lowering performance. Since 2002, people in charge of results take account of this factor by adopting a statistical technique they call ‘comparable outcomes’.
Comparable outcomes dictate that there is relatively little change in overall performance at the point when new qualifications are introduced. Changes of more than 1% in results from year to year are rare, except in exams taken by only a few candidates.
Such little change at a national level shouldn’t hide the basic fact that these results matter most to individuals at a very personal level.
I declare an interest – my youngest child is waiting for GCSE results this Summer. As a policy person said to me, ‘I have skin in the game’.
Just like many others who are waiting for results right now, I’m hoping this Summer’s blockbuster will be nothing special.
Boring is good when it comes to exam results, generally speaking.
Author: Robin Hughes
Robin has been a school governor for over ten years and is bilingual, Welsh and English. Before becoming a consultant and working with a number of private and public sector educational organisations, Robin had stakeholder management roles in an examination board and was Wales Secretary for ASCL, a body that represents over 16,000 senior school leaders.