An Open Letter To GCSE Students And The Complete Farce Of Grade Boundaries And “Value Added”

Look at this image.

Lang xl

Column D is the grades students got in one of the years that I taught GCSE English Language. Column E is their UMS (for the uninitiated, that is like their total score). The first 11 students on that column are coloured green because if they had done exactly the same the year before, they would have secured a higher grade. And that is *checks thesaurus* “bilge”, “bunkum” and “crap”. More than that, it is unfair to students and teachers alike. What can a teacher say to a student who is distraught at missing a grade, a grade that they would have achieved the year prior with the exact same performance?

I collated data for exam results at schools that I taught at and every year I would see this disparity. I will never forget teaching a group and every student achieving a lower grade than we had predicted, predictions that had been made on the back of marking dozens of essays using previous year’s grades as a guide, and months of intensive learning. When I looked at the data, I realised that the problem was the grade boundaries had been moved up dramatically. One student had a UMS that would have been good enough for an A* in some years. They got a B. Another had done remarkably well, scoring 93% overall. They were 2% off of a top grade. To be clear, the year before, a top grade was 88%.

Students and teachers work extremely hard. Public examinations have a detrimental effect on mental health. The long summer that students get after their GCSE exams is deserved. Many of them have been working on them since Year 9. 3 years of study is around 20% of their young lives. They look at and complete past papers, and their teachers grade those papers, telling them that they are on track to secure their targets. Imagine going through 3 years of graft, revising hard, doing extra classes, seeing teachers at lunchtimes to go through work, sacrificing your social life, all in the hopes of doing the best you can, only to get grades lower than you had wanted? Now imagine the grades were lower because grade boundaries had been tampered with.  That’s the reality too many students will face. And it’s why I despised the term “Value-Added”.

Value-Added is a term that is used every exam season. It works like this. Sam is predicted a 7 in English Literature. For every grade over that 7, a positive score is given and for every grade under, a negative score is given. Problems arise immediately. That prediction is largely based on a test (normally Alis, Yellis or MidYIS) that is taken in Year 7. I had many arguments with colleagues over this, my argument being that predicting outcomes largely based on a test taken early in Year 7 was insanity. Let us imagine that Sam comes into Year 10 (or 9 in many schools) lacking confidence and having issues with self-esteem (maybe because they have a low MidYIS? – Ed). In the 2 (or 3)  years that they study GCSEs, they gain confidence, a love for the subject (nurtured by a caring, hardworking teacher) and develop a lifelong passion for a number of the subjects that they learn. If Sam gets a 6, technically the school has added negative value. Maybe if they had taken the exam a year earlier and got the same score, the school would have added value. Too often, Value-Added feels reductive especially when, as I showed above, 11 pupils’ grades were negatively affected by the year they sat an exam.

I have spoken to lead examiners, members of OFQUAL and heads of learning and teaching from the best schools in the country and there are 2 other things that need to be made clear.

  1. The grade boundaries are sorted only after the marks have been collated.
  2. The grade boundaries are linked to national tests taken in Year 9. This means if a cohort does really well in Year 9, their grade boundaries are likely to be raised.

Read those 2 points again and tell me why we should care when government ministers tell us that exam results have gone up or down?

I’ll finish by talking directly to the students anxiously waiting on their results tomorrow. There’s an extended version of this here.


Most of you don’t know me. I taught for 9 years before leaving the profession. GCSEs are a large percentage of your young lives and I know that you have worked hard. All of you. Especially those of you who try to act like you haven’t. I respect the late revision nights, the frustrations that you have with teachers that act as if theirs is the only subject that you are taking, your desire to avoid the dreaded “D” word (that’s disappointment), the seemingly endless revision, mock tests, first, second and third drafts, the tears, gallows humour and sacrifices that you make. That is what you should take from this. All of those things are skills. Those colour coded, heavily annotated books that you have; the sheets where you have written out BODMAS 100 times; the silly songs that you have made up to learn the irregular verbs and the subject specific playlists that you have made – all of these show that you are willing to work hard, step outside your comfort zone and be innovative in the pursuit of success. So don’t worry if you couldn’t remember trigonometry, what year Richard III did something important or the rain cycle. No employer will ask you about those (unless you go on to design rollercoasters, head up the Richard III appreciation society or become a meteorologist – Ed). Instead take pride in the fact that you worked on a variety of different subjects for 2 or 3 years and gave your best effort most of the time. Whether you got the grades you wanted or not take a couple of days to celebrate or commiserate and then get ready for what comes next. Success and disappointment are potent fuels and you can use them to drive you to your future destinations. Whether I know you or not, I’m proud of you.

A Black Unicorn

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