Education: Did Signature Deliver A GCSE Breakthrough?

The publication of the latest examination performance results provided a positive news story amidst the gloom of the ongoing debacle that is the political talks process.

The headline figure is the news that just over 65% of year 12 pupils achieved the baseline academic threshold of 5 ‘good’ GCSEs (ie A*-C grades including Maths and English), a significant jump from the 60.9% figure for all pupils recorded in 2012/13.

This was a direct consequence of the improvement recorded in our Non-Grammar school sector, where 44.0% of year 12 pupils met this target, up from 37.7% in 2012/13 and from 33% in 2008/09.

In Grammar schools, 94.5% of year 12 pupils secured these results, up 0.5% from 2012/13.

There are three points of note emerging from the latest publication of the annual GCSE results.

Firstly, the OFMDFM Delivering Social Change Signature Project initiative appears to have made a direct impact. Now in its second academic year of operation, these results were the first for pupils who will have received the direct additional tuition support offered at targeted schools through the programme.

The ETI recently conducted a series of inspections of how the project was being implemented across all sectors. Although I’m not privy to the results of their findings, anecdotally I know that a number of post-primary Non-Grammar schools believe that the Signature Project was a significant factor in helping the borderline pupils in their respective schools secure the GCSE grades in Maths and English necessary to raise the numbers and percentage of pupils hitting the target. As the person co-ordinating the programme in my own school (along with our DSC Teacher), I can attest to the impact such a targeted initiative can make at primary level as well, where the focus has been on lifting the number of pupils who secure Level 4 in Maths and English before the end of Key Stage 2.

Alas, this programme was introduced as a two-year initiative, with the teacher contracts due to expire in 2015. As the Minister of Education, John O’Dowd, has noted, the improved results appear to be directly related to school improvement initiatives, and I can’t believe he did not mean the Signature Project when making that comment. Consequently, it would appear that the Executive faces a very difficult decision in the near future: continue a programme which appears to be making a direct impact- more so than many other school improvement initiatives introduced at department or board level- or sacrifice the initiative as part of the cost-cutting agenda.

Secondly, In a recent article I posted on Slugger, I highlighted how a number of factors, including the robust approach of ETI and an enhanced culture of scrutiny and public accountability, seemed to have effectively contributed towards a significant improvement in the results profile of our children at GCSE level over the past decade.

The trajectory for improvement has been clear, at least at the level of pupils achieving 5 GCSEs or equivalents (A*-C) since 2009/10, as the table below illustrates.

% Achieving 5+ GCSEs or Equivalents A*-C

  2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14
Non-Grammar 54.1% 54.8% 60.1% 63.9% 67.2% 70.6%
Grammar 96.8% 96.3% 97.0% 97.0% 97.3% 97.2%
Overall 71.2% 70.8% 75.3% 77.8% 79.6% 81.8%

The driver for improvement across the board has been significant year on year increases in the percentage of pupils in the Non-Grammar sector obtaining the required grades, which has had the positive effect on increasing the overall figures accordingly (the year on year Non-Grammar results in bold above). I addressed the issue of how matching learners with qualifications in a pragmatic sense has aided this process in that earlier article (the rise of the equivalents being crucial in this story.)

But this year is noteworthy for the unprecedented jump in the percentage of Non-Grammar pupils who reached the much more difficult target of 5 GCSEs or equivalents including Maths and English.

As the table below illustrates, the previous three academic years had seen a leveling off in this regard with the percentage of pupils in Non-Grammars hitting this target actually decreasing marginally from 2010/11 to 2011/12 before increasing modestly by 1.5% the following year to 37.7%.

% Achieving 5+ GCSEs A*-C including GCSE English and GCSE Maths

  2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14
Non-Grammar 32.9% 32.3% 36.4% 36.2% 37.7% 44.0%
Grammar 93.8% 93.1% 93.9% 92.9% 94.0% 94.5%
Overall 57.3% 55.8% 60.1% 60.1% 60.9% 65.2%

Therefore, the sharp rise in Non-Grammar pupils obtaining the 5 ‘good’ GCSE grades in 2013/14 represents a noteworthy advance in attainment that deserves both recognition and further investigation.

To put the achievement in its proper context, in 2005/06, just 43% of pupils in Non-Grammar schools obtained 5 GCSEs or equivalents. In 2013/14, a greater % of pupils (44%) in Non-Grammar schools managed the considerably more difficult feat of securing 5 GCSEs or equivalent including Maths and English.

81.8% of all year 12 pupils in 2013/14 also achieved 5 or more GCSEs or equivalents, the highest figure ever recorded, continuing the trend of annual improvement (up from 79.6% in 2012/13.)

ETI Chief Inspector, Noelle Buick, made clear in her Chief Inspector’s Report (November 2014) that their focus was shifting towards pupils not just achieving the 5 GCSEs mark but rather those achieving the 5 ‘good’ GCSEs- ie including Maths and English.

These statistics appear to vindicate that sharper focus on Numeracy and Literacy, and will create a new momentum within schools to ensure that the enhanced standard reached this year is matched and built upon in coming years.

My third point, however, introduces what might prove to be a significant caveat to what has been said above.

The growing awareness of the need to not only compete, but be seen to compete with other schools, through the publicly available statistics regarding the percentage of children achieving the 5 GCSEs and 5 ‘good’ GCSEs marks, has led to a situation where schools are increasingly aware of their ability to exclude children from those factored into the key statistics.

The Department is undoubtedly aware of this, and indeed the Statistical Bulletin makes a point of highlighting at length the trend and impact in terms of figures of this development.

The practice has reached a point today where more than 10% of year 12 pupils in Non-Grammar schools are deemed ineligible for inclusion in the statistics, which obviously has a bearing on the figures returned at a % level with regard to those reaching the key targets- the figure for Grammar schools is a meagre 1.7%, meaning the overall total of year 12 pupils who are excluded from the statistics stands at the not insignificant figure of 6.8%.

The reasons for exclusion can vary, but what is clear is that a significant cohort of young persons who do not feature in our statistics are still leaving school with little or no qualifications, leaving themselves- and society- with the same challenges and problems as was the case when this cohort of children were more likely to be included in the annual statistical profile.


Well, on the face of it, the sharper focus on academic attainment at GCSE level over the past decade has led to cultural changes within schools that have had the effect of significantly enhancing the percentage and number of pupils who secure both the minimum target of 5 GCSEs or equivalents and, more latterly, the more ambitious target of 5 ‘good’ GCSEs.

However, the very public- and competitive- nature of this process has meant that schools are now much more willing to exclude children from their statistical data submitted for the figures used to draw the aforementioned conclusions to the point that a growing cohort of children whose results (or non-results) we can confidently deduce would make grim reading are not being factored in.

Whilst that is completely understandable at an individual school level (where school leaders and teachers quite appropriately wish to be recognized for the lengths they have gone to in order to help as many of their pupils as possible realize their academic potential), nevertheless it suggests that the Department of Education would best be advised including an additional statistical figure year on year which provided a percentage of children who secured the key academic threshold targets as a percentage of all of the children of that year group. After all, it is this figure which would provide us with the clearest and most accurate picture of the number of young people who face the steepest of uphill battles to find employment as they become young adults and enter the ‘real world.’

  • Bryan Magee

    Very interesting and encouraging Chris.

  • Ernekid

    All GCSEs are useful for are measuring how good a kid is at taking exams. It not really a useful metric for measuring anything else.

  • Bryan Magee

    If you are better taught in math that will show in the % results. When I have worked with people (for math related work) I’ve generally tried to use only those with an A* in GCSE Maths, it does make a difference in my experience.

  • Deke Thornton

    No they’re not. The standards have dropped to the level where my cat could get a Grade C in Maths by putting it’s pawmark on the cover. The exam boards have colluded in a lowering of standards for nearly 30 years. A grade c O Level would now be A* and a grade C GCSE means the candidate can add up to 10. Even if you cannot do that, there are alternative ‘qualifications’ that are apparently ‘equivalent’. It’s a farce. Employers know this even if DENI pretend otherwise. This farce has been discontinued on the mainland by real politicians.

  • Patrick Doherty

    The quest to make sure everybody gets a grade C in maths or above is foolish and damaging. There are people who just will never get the hang of the timetables. This is not a bad thing, this is just the human race. These young people have a calculator on them at all times (phones) and yet are forced to use mental arithmetic to work out percentages. This holds them back throughout school and further education. I work as an essential skills tutor where a Level 2 is equivalent to a C at GCSE. They are still required to sit a test without calculator even though in a job this would be extremely bad practice even for someone who can achieve an A*. This is archaic snobbery prevents confidence-building in older students who were failed by the examination system. Not forgetting the young people slugging it out in a system that only cares about their exam results. To clarify I do not blame teachers for this.

    This drive for qualifications utterly undermines the goal that we are really focused on… providing an environment where learners can gain the skills needed to be a success in the real world.

    The current maths GCSE does have a place, it must be seen as an academic qualification and the beginning of path to further academic study. It is not suitable for everyone and damaging for many.

    “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” – Albert Einstein