‘…there is no evidence from the attainment data that these [exam] reforms helped lower-attaining pupils,’ concludes Education Datalab in its analysis of changes in GCSE entry patterns since the Wolf review of 2011.
Post Wolf, the way exams counted in school performance tables was changed. Qualifications which were previously eligible became ineligible. And the equivalent value given to non-GCSE eligible exams was reduced.
Education Datalab found the changes particularly affected pupils who would typically have followed a less academic curriculum. Many schools removed equivalent exams from their courses and changed to GCSEs. Pupils who would previously have followed a more vocational, less academic route were now being entered for more GCSEs. But this led to a fall in the proportion of pupils reaching the target of 5 GCSEs A*-C (or equivalent at age 16) by 2014.
When Education Datalab looked at attainment by age 18, it found ‘the post-reform cohort were less likely to have achieved five or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent (Level 2 of the National Qualifications Framework) than their counterparts in the pre-reform cohorts.’
EduDatalab admit that if the equivalent exams were of little value then ‘perhaps nothing much changed’.
Reducing the value given to equivalent exams – up to 4 GCSEs in some cases - was welcome. It removed the ability of schools to game the system by entering pupils for these exams in order to boost a school’s ranking in league tables. In the worst cases, pupils only needed to take English, Maths and one eligible equivalent exam to achieve the target of 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English.
Reforms resulting from Wolf, however, aren’t the only reforms. The introduction of EBacc and changes to GCSEs are just as significant, if not more so, than changes the value given to equivalent exams.
The emphasis on the academic EBacc has squeezed out qualifications which don’t count in the EBacc measure such as creative subjects. EBacc presumes that academic is superior to non-academic. This affects all pupils, of course, but it more affects low-achieving pupils.
Wholesale reform of GCSEs, supposedly to introduce ‘rigour’, means exams (and those cursed league tables) are focussed on age 16 rather than where it should be: age 18. It wasn’t changes to GCSE that were needed but a move towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes: non-academic as well as academic. that post-Wolf exam reform helped lower-attaining pupils.