The inside dope: GCSEs

The teenage years: a time when your child is blown off the map into a world of danger and temptation (yes, I’m taking a creative writing class).

I’ve had to deal with the teen’s first girlfriend, house party hangover and timely arrest for stockpiling fireworks.

But what have I learned?

First up: GCSEs. Here’s a few things I didn’t know about the exams. If you’re child is taking them, I hope this information helps.

1: OK, so you’ve got two kids taking the same subject in different schools. They could both score 80% but come out with different grades. One gets an ‘A’, the other a ‘B’.

2: An exam board can make an exam harder AFTER the tests have been taken.

How do they do this? They simply change the grade barrier.

Why is this important?

Here’s a quick example:

Let’s say that last year, your school’s exam board set an ‘A’ grade at 75%. When pupils take their mock exam, they use last year’s test papers with the set grade boundaries. They get 75% in their mock, so get an ‘A’ grade.

Now you come to the final test. Congratulations, you managed to get the same score: 75%, BUT they’ve changed the grade boundary, so now you need to get 80% for an ‘A’. They do not tell you about this boundary change before the exam. So, the pupil scores the same in their finals, as they did in their mocks, but get downgraded from an ‘A’ to a ‘B’. Naturally, the pupil feels like they’ve underperformed.

But this can go both ways.

Schools use different exam boards. One board could LOWER the boundaries (hey presto! More kids pass at higher grades). This is where some of the conspiracy theories come from. Some speculate that this could be used to balance out results across regions. Giving failing schools higher pass rates.

In short: kids getting the same marks are potentially getting different grades. This is key. Your child’s grade is not determined purely on their intelligence and effort. The system plays a big role. 

I didn’t know any of this. I naturally assumed that all kids taking english, for example, would take the same paper and be marked under the same conditions. 

What to do?

Firstly, it’s worthwhile finding out about the exam board used by your school. Are they prone to raising boundaries, or lowering them?

On result’s day, you just get the grade score. You need to get the actual percentage mark. This is more revealing and gives a greater insight. If your child is say, one mark away from getting a higher grade, you can ask for the paper to be remarked. If you’re close to the boundary, the school usually gets in touch to inform you. If the mark is altered upwards, the fee is waved, but if it stays the same, or goes lower, you have to pay approx £40.

What about retaking the exam?

It’s an option, but it’s not actively encouraged, unless there is going to be a massive leap. Plus, this is just anecdotal, so I can’t confirm, but I’m told that universities don’t even look at GCSE results, they just take the A level results. And even if they did, they would only look at English language and maths, alongside the character reference.

If we did it all again, what would we do differently?

I’d make one major change. The exam boards are all different and mark differently. I would treat the exam board as a client. Find out how they mark and write what the client wants.

Of course, non of this explains why my teen came home from his math’s exam with a love bite, but I hope it helps.

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