Getting beyond the ABCs of GCSEs

The real answers to the problems in Britain’s schools are intellectual rigour and a clear sense of purpose, not grade-fiddling.

Jonathan Hartford

Topics Politics

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This is the time of year when anyone with an interest in education ought to be bemoaning yet more evidence of grade inflation. Since the sitting of the first GCSE exams in 1988, results have ‘improved’ year on year. While secretaries of state for education and a few naive educators have celebrated rising results as evidence of increasing educational quality, the rest of us have recognised an ongoing crisis in the education sector.

But last Thursday’s results showed what, at first, appeared to be a remarkable halt to grade inflation. For the first time in their 24-year history, GCSE grades haven’t gone up. Indeed, the proportion of students awarded an A grade has dropped by 0.8 per cent; and those in the ‘good pass’ range of A-C grades has fallen by 0.4 per cent across England and Wales.

It’s no surprise that many parents and teachers have not been celebrating this apparent move towards rigorous standards. Joan McVittie, until now one of education secretary Michael Gove’s favourite headteachers, told the Guardian that her ‘pupils have had their life chances damaged’. The Daily Telegraph announced that university places for top students have been put ‘at risk’, while the Daily Mail derided the results as ‘totally unfair’.

The problem for anyone keen to see an end to grade inflation and who is in favour of academic standards is that, for once, the moaners are right. Last week’s GCSE results have made a mockery of any notion of rigour and objectivity in the grading system.

In an astoundingly short-sighted redrawing of the grade boundaries in GCSE English, the minimum mark required for a C grade was moved from 44 in the January paper to 53 in the June paper. In other words, many students following the same syllabus in the same year, studying under the same teachers who would quite rightly have assumed they were preparing their students for, if not exactly the same exam script, at least one of equitable standard that would be similarly marked, have had their results determined by the decision to sit the exam in January rather than June.

Headteachers have demanded a total remark of the English GCSE papers; the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents over 17,000 heads, is considering legal action against exam boards. Teachers and parents requesting exam-script remarking is par for the course at this time of year, and it is normally symptomatic of the instrumentalist culture in examinations. But for once, the demands for a regrade have something to recommend them.

Following Michael Gove’s public mission to curb grade inflation, the Office of Qualifications and Exam Regulation (Ofqual) seems to have put significant pressure on exam boards to redraw grade boundaries. According to John Nield, former principal examiner in English for the AQA board, such meddling with grade boundaries to achieve politically motivated results has been routine for the past few years. However, whether this fiasco is the result of an explicit order from on high, or simply the result of exam boards being keenly aware what was expected of them, is really beside the point. What has been revealed very clearly is something many people have suspected for a number of years: that there is really only the loosest of relationships between the intellectual content of a student’s exam script and the grade that script receives from exam markers.

The clearest example of the complete absence of objectivity in the politically motivated grading system must be the contradictory statements of Ofqual’s chief regulator, Glenys Stacey. On Thursday night, in an interview with BBC Newsnight, she defended the GCSE results as ‘the right results’, insisting her job was to ensure that exams were free of political manipulation and that objective standards based on expert judgment had been applied in the exam system. But on Saturday, in a dramatic climbdown, Stacey wrote to the National Association of Head Teachers to sympathise with ‘continuing concerns among students, parents and teachers about this year’s GCSE English results’ and promising a review to ‘look closely at how the results were arrived at.’

Gove has begun to initiate a fundamental shake-up of the examination system. He has got rid of a huge number of non-academic subjects, and promised a greater emphasis upon academic subjects, intellectual rigour and meaningful standards. These aspirations should be supported and praised.

But what this scandal reveals is that the UK education system is as seriously threatened by politicisation from those who seek to create greater rigour as it has been over the past couple of decades under the rule of those who have sacrificed content to ever-rising results. In both cases, an emphasis on the quantifiable results has come at the expense of any serious questions about the content of the syllabus and the expectations it makes of young students.

It makes very little difference where we impose boundaries between different grades if we have no real understanding of what we want to measure and against what standards we should assess students’ intellectual development. What we need is a sense of what we think are the valuable things that students should be studying, and what level of engagement will express excellence, average understanding or inadequate development. What this fiasco reveals is that there is no point talking the talk about rigour and standards in the absence of a more responsible attempt to rethink the structure of education in the UK.

Jonathan Hartford is a teacher based near London.

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Topics Politics


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