A-level results day brings with it a brief flurry of activity back onto our campuses during the summer. There is no such fanfare a week later for the GCSE results: there is just not as much to take notice of, is there?
GCSE results matter to universities. Highly selective courses have for some time been using prior attainment in GCSEs to choose between high performing A-level candidates. However, within some admissions offices, GCSE results matter at this time of year, with their institutions holding a pot of conditional offers until they can confirm the retake results in the key subjects such as maths, science and English.
Achieving at least a C grade is also often essential to access certain graduate professions, including teaching and healthcare. We also know that a wide range of graduate employers have minimum GCSE requirements. If we are serious about the employability of our students, we should take more responsibility in understanding why GSCEs are important to employers, and work with schools to ensure future applicants are choosing the correct qualifications.
Also, GCSE results will become more relevant to the sector as the A-level reforms are implemented. The reforms will mean that only a small number of pupils will take AS-levels, and therefore GCSE results will be the last national public examination results available to universities. Are we prepared for this change?
If we are going to make offers based on GCSEs, we need to better understand the relationship between A-level results and prior attainment at GCSE. We should learn from our colleagues in schools and colleges, who better understand the reliability of GCSE results as a predictor of attainment.
In my experience, teachers will confess that GCSEs are a poor predictor, with the difference in levels being a challenge for some students. It is also likely that the reforms to the GCSE qualifications will influence our admissions decision-making. What will be the impact of the raising of the participation age and the compulsory maths resits for all those studying beyond 16? What offers will you make when the old C grade does not correlate to the new grades (it will straddle grades 4 and 5)? Will you require the new grade 9 for your most competitive courses?
As a sector, we need to consider carefully what new GCSE grades we will require students to achieve and why.
Perhaps, therefore, it’s time we think differently about qualifications. Universities should seek students who will have the potential to succeed and whom we believe will flourish and develop. We need to understand our own data, and eventually commit to the use of contextual admissions based on the evidence we already have.
Ross Renton is pro vice-chancellor for students at the University of Worcester.