2015 GCSE Results: Signature’s Swan Song

The 2015 GCSE results were announced yesterday, with news reports capturing the mixture of emotions experienced by teenagers as they discover how they have performed in what can be significant assessments in terms of determining the future career paths they take- either through pursuing A Levels, other qualifications, training courses or employment opportunities.

The overall headline figure, that 78.7% of entries were awarded an A*-C grade (up 0.7% on 2014), compared favourably with both England (69%) and Wales (66%.)

But the results this year are perhaps most noteworthy for further confirming the upward trend in performance for our pupils in the key subjects of Maths and English.

For the first time, more than three-quarters of entries in English received an A*-C grade (75.8%), representing a 7% increase since 2013. That figure is a full 16% points ahead of the equivalent figure for Wales and more than 10% points above the results in England (one caveat- in Wales, the exams can be taken at a second date during the academic year, and those results do tend to be higher- though still not approaching the figures reached in NI.)

In Maths, the 66.6% of entries securing grades A*-C represents a 2% increase on 2013 and is some distance above the 47.5% figure for Wales, though the 64.1% result in England reveals a similar pattern of improvement over the past two years in English schools for Maths results.

The tables below illustrate the contrasting performances in Northern Ireland, Wales and England over the past six academic years in terms of A*-C results secured in the key subjects of Maths and English.

% Pupils achieving A*-C Grades 2010-2015: N Ireland

English Maths
 % satA*-C  % satA*-C
201513.775.8 201515.666.6
201413.673.0 201415.066.2
201313.768.8 201314.564.6
201213.068.2 201214.362.9
201113.468.5 201114.960.9
201013.568.1 201015.060.9


% Pupils achieving A*-C Grades 2010-2015: Wales

English Maths
 % satA*-C  % satA*-C
201514.159.7 201515.747.5
201413.958.0 201416.050.6
201314.459.6 201313.952.8
201212.160.9 201213.255.5
201112.761.3 201113.156.4
201012.761.6 201012.955.4

% Pupils achieving A*-C Grades 2010-2015: England

English Maths
 % satA*-C  % satA*-C
20159.565.3 201514.364.1
20149.561.4 201414.063.0
201313.463.7 201313.957.7
201212.864.2 201212.958.3
201112.665.5 201115.158.8
201013.164.8 201014.258.5

Note how the four year pattern of consistent performance in terms of English in Northern Ireland was broken in the past two years, with consecutive years of significant increases being recorded. Whilst the improvement in Maths has been more gradual, it nevertheless remains on an upward trajectory, reaching its highest level yet this year at 66.6%.

The crucial figures revealing the % of pupils who secured 5+ GCSE grades (A*-C) will not be published until later in the year, though the pattern of results allows us to confidently project another year in which the figure for the % of pupils securing that target will be an advance on what has been reached in previous years- and, on that note, the 2014 figure of 65.2% represented the highest ever performance for our pupils at this level.

On that occasion, I noted the key role played by the Delivering Social Change: Signature Project in making the difference for a critical cohort of our pupils, particularly in the non-grammar sector, who, without the additional small group tuition provided for by the specialist subject signature teachers, would likely not have secured a C grade or better.

The strategic decision to focus additional professional support at primary and post-primary level to combat underachievement in a manner that has been highly accountable has clearly paid dividends, and the 2015 Statistical Bulletin, when released in December, will almost certainly reveal an improvement in terms of not just overall and non-grammar performance, but also an improvement in the results of free school meal entitled pupils.

The striking nature of the improvement in attainment levels reached by non-grammar pupils in 2014 was the key factor driving the overall improvement rate, as illustrated in the table below. The indications from yesterday’s announcement regarding overall GCSE entries suggest that the non-grammar figure is likely to push further towards 50% and possibly lift the overall figure beyond the symbolic 66.6% level, which would mean that, for the first time ever, 2 in every 3 pupils was securing 5 good GCSEs.

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


Below, I have looked at the performance (overall and by gender) in the key subjects of Maths and English from 2012 through to 2015, comparing particularly the performances in 2013 that preceded the commencement of the Signature Project with the results just announced, after two years of Signature.

2012-15 GCSE Maths Performance by grades & gender (NI)

   +2.5% C Grades

-0.2% A*-B Grades

   +4.0% C Grades

-2.1% A*-B Grades

   +3.1% C Grades

-1.1% A*-B Grades


Overall, the % of students achieving a C grade in Maths has increased by some 3.1% over the 2 years of Signature (2013-15), whilst those achieving A*-B grades dropped by 1.1%. For girls, there was a 4% improvement in those reaching the C grade in Maths, with a drop in 2.1% securing the higher A*-B grades (for boys, the pattern is repeated, with +2.5% getting C grades and -0.2% the higher grades.)

Clearly, obtaining the higher grades in Maths has become more difficult in recent years, though this has been more than off-set by the numbers of pupils securing a C grade.

2012-15 GCSE English Performance by grades & gender (NI)

   +3.0% C Grades

+5.0% A*-B Grades

   +0.1% C Grades

+5.8% A*-B Grades

   +1.5% C Grades

+5.5% A*-B Grades


The most significant advance in terms of performance can be found in examining the levels of attainment reached by boys in English over the two years from 2013 to 2015.

The 69.8% of entrants securing an A*-C grade in 2015 represented an 8% advance on 2013. Similarly, the advance for girls was 6.1% from 2013 to 2015. Overall, the 75.8% A*-C grades in 2015 represented a 7% increase on the 68.8% from 2013.

Notably, unlike Maths, the pattern in English reveals that the improvement drive is manifesting itself primarily in a greater number of A and B grades, as opposed to simply more C grades, with 5.5% more A*-B grades in 2015 as opposed to 2013, and 1.5% more C grades over that period.

Alas, the Signature Project is no more.

Devised initially as a two-year programme, attempts to persuade the Executive to continue funding the initiative fell on deaf ears, no doubt due to the perilous state of finances up on the hill. Given that it is extremely unusual to devise and deliver education initiatives which make such a tangible impact, it is a real pity that funding could not be sourced to continue with the programme.

In any case, the legacy of Signature should be in inspiring education authorities, school leaders and teachers into continuing to devise strategies and approaches to combating underachievement, knowing that we can make the difference.