Scope of Paper

The article examines whether the introduction of end-of-course, linear GCSE exams changed the socio-economic equity gap in England.

Key Findings

  • It’s clear that an attainment gap based on socio-economic status exists for students studying GCSE mathematics.
  • This attainment gap is not affected by the type of examination structure experienced by the students (i.e. modular or linear examination).

More Detail

Between 2008 and 2012, GCSEs were mostly modular, broken into discrete topics and examined in stages throughout the course. GCSEs had also been largely modular prior to 2008.

Between 2007 and 2014, GCSEs underwent reforms to both the curriculum and the examination structure, culminating with the coalition government making significant changes to examination policy. As a result of these changes, since 2014 Ofqual has required all GCSEs to be examined in a linear fashion.

For GCSEs this means the entire course content being examined simultaneously at the end of the course.

In addition, the reforms of the coalition government resulted in further changes to the structure of GCSE courses, including a reduction in coursework, an increase in the difficulty of examinations, and the change from letter grades to numerical grades.

GCSEs are high stakes examinations. Until 2015, GCSEs were the formal school-leaving qualification. Since 2015, young people are required to remain in education or training until the age of 18, but GCSEs still remain important qualifications considered by further education providers, higher education providers, and employers.

Socio-economic status (SES) has long been understood to impact GCSE outcomes, for example, Sammons et al. (2014) found that parents’ highest level of qualification when the child was age 3 or 5 was the strongest predictor of GCSE mathematics outcomes.

The interest in the impact of the change to GCSE examination structure on low SES students is driven by a long-held but little-evidenced view that modular examinations are more suitable for lower-performing students, including those with lower SES and those eligible for free school meals. There is a suggestion that modular exams are easier to resit, and therefore it is more likley a student will have an opportunity to improve their grade.

Despite this widespread viewpoint, there is little prior research examining the SES equity gap that compares modular and linear examinations. A report from Ofqual in 2019 provides the background to this study:

Baird et al. (2019) reported gaps in attainment based on SES, gender and centre type for GCSE English, mathematics and science qualifications. Unlike the current study, findings included all students, no matter their age. There was no educationally significant difference in outcomes for the mathematics and science students between the modular and linear examinations, but for GCSE English the modular outcomes were better for more disadvantaged students.

Here, Pinot de Moira et al. look specifically at mathematics, and find that between 2007 and 2014, students sitting modular exams were more likely to have worse outcomes. This is a contradiction to the rationale that lead to modular exams being scrapped, with the ex-education minister Michael Gove claiming that modular GCSEs had ‘dumbed down’ the qualification.

This research confirms that there is a clear attainment gap in mathematics between disadvantaged students and their peers.

This gap is not found to be exacerbated by the linearisation of GCSE exams, and the authors conclude that the attainment gap is not increased by differing exam structures.