I/GCSE, A Levels: Measuring Real Performance

Every year, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com approaches schools around the UAE to ask them to share their exams results with us. A fundamental part of our message is that we recognise that results are not – and should not be - the be-all and end-all of education, but how well a school delivers in examinations is an important aspect of how a school is measured by parents, and a factor in making their school choice.
I/GCSE, A Levels: Measuring Real Performance
By Lyn Soppelsa
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To say exam results matter to parents is not a belief, but a fact: According to school research site, EdStatica.com, which is powered by our surveys, one in five parents choose their school based results on external examinations by the time their child reaches Year 11, citing it as the most important consideration in school selection. This is up from 9% for parents with children across all age ranges. 

Moreover, higher education pathways (that obviously come, in significant part, via exam success), curriculum, location, and the holistic nature of the school were recently identified as the messages generating most admissions enquiries by school data company ISC. These factors were considered more influential than price point, co-curricular activities, and tech offerings.

So, if exam performance is a way in which schools are measured and selected by parents, understanding outcomes is important to both parents, and to the schools that clearly want to deliver for their stakeholders.  

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com recently published an article explaining how to decipher and really understand school performance in the context of July’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme results.  This article aims to be its companion, outlining what to look for when considering a school’s performance at I/GCSE and A Levels. 

At first sight, it appears easy to judge school performance simply based on grades awarded to students – logic says that if a school has a higher proportion of students earning top grades, this must make them the ‘best’.  

However, there’s a lot more to consider than the simple number of highest-achieving students.  In fact, it is much about how a school serves its student community across the academic range, from those who are the most gifted to those who need additional support and the majority of students who probably fall in between. 

Some data to mull on

This chart, while not particularly easy to read, is one way to measure the performance of the UAE's schools. On the x axis, we have the number of students taking GCSEs. On the the Y axis, we have the percentage of grades A* to A. According to the guide below, it is harder for a school, all other things being equal, to achieve a higher percentage of top grades if the cohort size is large. Schools to the right have a larger cohort size. Schools at the top of the chart have achieved the highest grades. From our perspective we see two obvious outliers: DESC and DC. Excitement over DC's results however need to be tempered by the fact that it is one of the only selective schools in the UAE, and cherry picks the academically most 'gifted' students... On that reading, DESC seems to be the light shining the brightest... Would you agree?




How to Read Exam Data

To help us, let's make this real, let’s look at four schools’ I/GCSE results in 2022, the year students sat examinations for the first time since 2019.  The principles outlined here apply equally to A’ Level results – the only difference being the grading structure, where a pass grade is from A to E and where there is no measure of performance across multiple subjects.

  No. of students No. of exam entries % of entries graded 9 % of entries graded A*/9-8 % of entries graded A*-A/9-7 % of entries graded A*-B/9-6 % of exam entries graded A*-C (9-4)  % of students achieving 5 A*-C (9-4) including English and Maths Overall Student Pass Rate A*-C (9-4)
School A  np np 25 55 (46) 68 (41) 83 (64) 98 (82) 100 (68) 100 (85)
School B  np np n/a 32 57 np 99 np np
School C  140 (125) 1398 (1211) 56 (50) 80 (74) 90 (85) 95 (92) 99 (100) 100 (100) 100
School D  230 (225) 2120 (2105) 19.5 (10.5) 51 (34) 72 (54) 85 (78) 99.5 (93) 98 (95) 99.5 (93)

Notes: UK-based GCSEs (which are taught in UK schools and many UK curriculum schools internationally) have a different reporting structure to IGCSEs (International GCSEs which are administered by UK Exam Boards, but designed for international schools with a less 'British' focus). In 2017, these changed from a grade of A*- G, to 9 (the highest) to 1.  IGCSE A*-G grades total eight grades, whilst GCSE 9 to 1 totals 9.  A Grade 9 is worth more than an A*, and is therefore noted separately.  It is also important to note that the data relates to the percentage achieved for examinations passed – not for the number of students who passed the exams, which is shown in the last two columns.

So, which of the four school did the 'best'?

At first sight, School A appears to have performed well – better than Schools B and D – with 55% of entries being graded A*.  However, there are two very significant pieces of information missing – the number of students who sat the exams, and the number of examinations that were written.  Without these two bits of data there is no way of knowing whether just a small group of students were entered with a relatively low number of examinations – making it more likely that they would do better potentially than a school with a much larger student number and broader range of exam entries. There are many British curriculum schools in the UAE that limit the choice of subjects for their students, focusing on a narrow range that will lead to traditional professions.

School B is a school that only offers IGCSE exams and therefore has no Grade 9 passes (remember, only UK based GCSEs offer Grade 9s). Although it clearly did not perform as well as the other three schools, there is no information about the student numbers or exam entries, which could have been a very high in number in a highly inclusive school and with a wide range of subjects. A highly inclusive school should not be measured on the same terms as a selective one, which only accepts academically able students.

The other key piece of information that is missing is the school’s previous performance (which is provided in the table in brackets).  WhichSchoolAdvisor.com always requests schools provide the comparative grades for the previous year, in order to see whether there has been an improvement in achievement, whether the results have remained the same as the previous year, or indeed, whether they have been less favourable. 

Covid-19 meant teachers awarded the I/GCSE and A Level grades in 2020 and 2021, leading to significant inflation of grades. For our 2022 report, all schools were asked to provide their results from 2019 as a base against which to measure more fairly how their students this year had performed. This was in line with the policy of the UK Exam Regulator. In this way the comparison on our results story is like for like – against the last year a set of written examinations were held under exam conditions.  

Ideally, any school should be aiming to improve its students’ successes year on year. Where there is no comparative figure, the assumption must be that students did not perform as well as the school expected or had done in previous years.  

A further strong measure of performance – specific to GCSE - is the percentage of students achieving a minimum of 5 GCSEs including English and Maths – a measure set by the UK Department of Education to ensure that students are passing the core subjects.  Where this figure is missing, it again suggests that the school has not met the minimum expected criteria.

School C’s results reveal a school with a sizeable cohort that has been very high achieving in both the current academic year and in 2019. At first sight, this is the most successful school academically. However, with some digging this should not be a surprise, as this school is highly selective, taking only the most able students.  Looking at exam results outcomes is not enough. It is important to understand the school’s admissions policy. A selective school will obviously do better than an inclusive one that takes in all students, regardless of academic ability. 

Finally, if we then consider School D’s results, it is clear that this is a very large school with a sizeable student cohort and high number of examination entries across a wide range of subjects. Although its results are not as ‘high’  as School C in percentage terms, this is a school that is highly inclusive, educating a very large number of students of all abilities. In addition, this year’s students have significantly out-performed those of 2019 by almost every measure.

There is a tendency among many schools to avoid providing any information beyond the details of their ‘school toppers’.  Clearly, this is a very selective approach to providing data about student success, since there is no means of knowing how representative of the student body the Toppers are.  If you want to draw comparisons, ask the school to give you the details outlined here.

Therefore, when comparing results of individual schools, one against the other to determine which is ‘best’, it is vital to check:

  • The size of the school cohort
  • The number of exam entries and, therefore, the breadth of subject offering  
  • The selectiveness or inclusiveness of the school concerned
  • The improvement in achievement year on year
  • And the transparency of the school – if they do not reveal all the details included here, you might wish to question why…

Finally, look beyond exams...

Having read this article and understanding what to look for in terms of school performance, put all of this ‘knowledge’ to one side.  As we said in our introduction, exam performance, whilst an important measure of a school, is but one factor in the success of the school’s students. 

Over the years, we have been party to the handover of exam results to students on the day. We have been privy to the stories of individual students who achieved far beyond initial expectations or who have fought all manner of difficulty to get to this point.  Every student had cause for celebration – even those who did not perhaps do as well as they had hoped for – and the support provided by teaching staff was a fundamental factor in their success.  “I could not have done it without Mr or Ms.” is always a huge part of students’ feedback.

Schools that have a diverse range of achievement – from the Grade 9 and A* students to those obtaining C’s across the board – celebrate every result, and the pride of staff (leaders, teachers and support staff) in their students’ accomplishments is real.  This is why we would like to see an end to the Topper culture which only celebrates the few. 

So yes, schools’ results are important in enabling them to assess their own performance against other similar schools, and to see where improvements can be made, but ultimately each school and student should be recognised not solely for academic success, but for all the elements that make up an effective, broad education, providing students with skills (and not just knowledge – how often do we use the facts that we learned in school in our daily lives) which will be key to their futures in a world that is changing exponentially. 

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