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What will GCSE courses look like in the future?

31/08/2012 Joanna
Although results season always prompts some debate in the media about the secondary school curriculum, this year's set of lower-than-expected grades has prompted a particularly fierce discussion.

However, there is much more that can be gleaned from the results than the surprise dip in grades for the first time in the history of GCSEs, including the popularity of particular subjects and the differences in attainment between boys and girls.

All of these statistics will very likely be used to shape the future of secondary education, so what have we learned from this year's examination data and what can those in teaching jobs expect from the next school term and beyond?

Fall in grades

This year saw an unprecedented drop in the percentage of entries graded A*-C, from 69.8 per cent last year to 69.4 per cent.

Since the GCSE examination replaced the O-level and CSE in 1988, results have improved year on year, so this dip has unsurprisingly caused concern among school leaders and those in secondary teacher jobs, who have seen their students receive lower grades than predicted.

However, a levelling off or even slight decline in performance might become par for the course in the future given that the government is increasingly keen to make exams tougher and better highlight the abilities of the most able students.

Education secretary Michael Gove recently reiterated his intention to make GCSEs more challenging.

"We … want additional rigour and stretch," he told the BBC.

This desire to challenge students further begins in earnest this September when those beginning their GCSEs will sit their exams at the end of the course in summer 2014, rather than in modules. They will also be prevented from re-sitting individual units.

Those in English Literature, geography, history and religious studies teaching jobs will also need to begin correcting pupils on their use of spelling, punctuation, grammar and specialist terms, which will account for five per cent of the total marks.

Subject matter

While these traditional subjects are experiencing curriculum changes, language teachers will be heartened to see that the number of students taking modern foreign languages is recovering.

The decline in students taking French and German slowed dramatically, while the number on Spanish courses rose.

There were also large increases in the number of those learning Arabic, Chinese, Persian, Polish, Portuguese and Italian.

"It will be interesting to see if this year's rise in students taking Spanish and the rate of decline slowing in French and German is the beginning of a trend that will see more young people studying languages," commented Michael Turner, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications.

Gender gap

Amid all this fluctuation, one thing has remained unchanged: girls get better grades than boys at GCSE level.

"Girls are continuing to outperform [boys] at A*s and As," Andrew Hall, chief executive of exam board AQA, told the Independent.

"Girls are increasing the gap very slightly at grades A to C."

But why is this?

A survey of children aged eight to 15 conducted by children's charity Plan UK revealed half think girls in England and Wales get higher grades than boys because they behave better in class.

Others have previously speculated that the coursework element of GCSEs is better suited to the way girls work.

"Girls tend to perform better with coursework while boys do better with end-of-year exams," commented Bill Alexander, AQA's director of curriculum and assessment.

There are also particular subjects where girls seem to do markedly better than boys, such as English and English Literature, while there is much less difference in subjects like maths.

This could be related to the differing ambitions of girls and boys.

Recent research from JP Morgan Asset Management revealed that the sectors girls would most like to work in are healthcare, teaching jobs and fashion, while boys are keener on careers in IT and engineering.

Clearly GCSEs are a bit of a minefield, with so many factors affecting each child's performance. Perhaps the key lesson of it all is to see pupils as individuals and not statistics. 

Posted by Theo FouldsADNFCR-2164-ID-801439829-ADNFCR
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