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Do we need "pass" and "fail"?

When GCSEs replaced O-levels and CSEs in about 1987 the grading system did not include, if I recall correctly, a fail threshold between grades C and D. The idea was that pupils would be rewarded for their achievement at whatever level. However, although the GCSE was designed to be a qualification for students of almost all abilities, it was always going to be the case that many would get below a grade C.

Once the tradition became quickly established that anything below a C was deemed (not necessarily by name) a "fail" students and schools would soon begin to doubt the value of their study. This contributed to the fall in MFL exam entries once the subject was made optional. In addition, with the growing importance of high stakes accountability measures schools, to a greater and greater extent, focused on the C/D borderline students, which inevitably had an effect on classroom practice.

The DfE has been aware of this side-effect of A-C accountability measures and is hoping to address it with the new eight subject progress measure.

So what if we could do away with the notion of pass and fail? Would the absence of a pass threshold discourage students from working hard to achieve it? Would it free up teachers to be less focused on the C/D borderline?

I doubt if students, on average, would work less hard in the absence of a pass grade. If some did, their number might well be counterbalanced by those who work hard to achieve any grade they can. Currently a C is valued much more highly than a D, whereas the psychological difference between a D and E is minimal. If we have to maintain our treasured tradition of grades, would it not be preferable if students strove to reach the best grade they could, whatever it may be? Maybe with new number grades we can avoid having a particular number as some kind of pass threshold.

With the prospect of a new 1-9 grading system for GCSE and the advent of this new "P8" measure, we have the opportunity to reconsider whether we need passes and fails. If students and schools were judged for their progress across eight subjects without the fear of "failing" any, it might encourage more students to take a language whilst teachers and pupils could take some pride in their achievement whatever the grade achieved.

It is of note that only at GCSE level do we allow large numbers of students to "fail". At A-level U grades are rare, whilst National Curriculum tests have no notion of pass and fail.

I would be all for doing away with the punitive notion of failure and recognising any level of success.Even better would be if we did away with GCSE completely and broaden our post 16 curriculum, bringing us in line with most nations. But that's another matter!


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