Lots of folk have had lots to say about what went on behind the scenes at the various exam boards this summer and throughout it all I’ve largely kept my peace. Having absorbed the various arguments and counter arguments I feel I’ve arrived at some sort of opinion.
In a nutshell, the issue seems to be that the prevailing (political?) opinion is that since the GCSE was first examined in 1988 (incidentally the year I took my exams) standards have steadily declined whilst grades have inexorably risen. For the past 24 years this orthodoxy has been if not unchallenged, at least accepted by the majority of educationalist and politicos. Then, along came Mr Gove on his well-muscled stallion and set out what all Daily Mail readers had long suspected: GCSEs were not fit for purpose and schools were churning out well-qualified youngsters who were unable to spell or add up. As far back as 2008 Gove made it clear that he would make GCSEs tougher and that pass marks for C grades should be doubled. Earlier this year he warned that, “There are going to be some uncomfortable moments in education reform in the years ahead. There will be years, because we are going to make exams tougher, when the number of people passing will fall.” The only real surprise is that it’s happened this year.
Yesterday he attacked the English Language GCSE as not being “fit for purpose” and added that he intended to “reform examinations at 16, move away from a discredited model and move towards one which is fair and has more rigour.” Well, I’ve got no complaints about making exams more rigorous, but what exactly does that mean? Was this year’s English GCSE really ‘not fit for purpose’? And if so, why?
I’m happy with the idea of modular exams being phased out, I’m delighted to hear that there will be only a single exam board allowed to write specifications for each subject and I’m over the moon to hear that controlled assessment will be culled. Fine. But why do we want to restrict the number of students who are awarded a C grade?
Whether you think the grade boundaries changing between January and June was fair or not, the reasoning behind manipulating figures in order to restrict the numbers of people who have passed an exam just seems bizarre. I can accept some of the issues raised about the problems with criteria based exams and absolutely accept that it’s impossible to avoid subjectivity when marking essays but the examiners are trained to ‘best fit’ a student’s work to a mark band which best describes their ability. If a student shows that they are able to meet the criteria for a C grade then it seems reasonable to suppose that they should be awarded a C grade. Doesn’t it?

Even Mr Gove wants his prize for falling results

Now the counter argument to this attacks the “All must have prizes” attitude that seeks to reward failure and dumb down curricula to the point where anyone can achieve. It may or may not be the case that getting a C grade in English is too easy. As an English teacher I don’t believe it’s particularly demanding (afterall the is C grade we’re talking about, not A*!) and have long thought that setting a target of 100% is a sensible approach: I act as if all students can get at least a C. And mostly they can. If students have earned their prize, why wouldn’t you want to let them have it? What possible benefit can there be from saying that only a set number of students are allowed prizes?
And frankly, a C grade in English is not all that much of a prize anyway. In the past I have taught students I’ve considered functionally illiterate who have managed to get C grades in English. I am not particularly proud of this. Morally, I think I should have spent more time improving their literacy and less time teaching to the test but this is the world in which we live. This, as I’ve been told throughout my career, is what we want. So to then turn round and attack a system which has been designed to make teachers very good at making students pass exams seems silly if you’re still going to bark and drool about standards.
David Cameron has even gone so far as to say that the “All must have prizes” culture is cruel. Why? Presumably on the basis that it somehow ‘robs’ children of aspiration. Isn’t it cruel to tell someone what they need to earn a prize and then refuse to let them have on the basis that you’ve given out too many prizes already and that although they did what you said they didn’t do it quite as well as someone else?
There’s a whole other puzzling argument about the ‘fact’ that criteria based exams will automatically result in grade inflation which is why we need norm referencing. I don’t buy it. Let’s accept for a moment that there has been grade inflation. That can’t be the fault of schools or teachers; they just don’t have the power. Grade inflation, if it’s allowed to happen, is fault of Ofqual and the exam boards. But why can’t we end grade inflation and still see results go up? Surely the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive? I’m not suggesting (as some my claim) that teaching has improved enormously over the past 20 years (I think it has) or that children are more intelligent (I know they’re not). It’s just that we’ve got really good at preparing students for exams. When I took my GCSEs in 1988 nobody gave a stuff whether I passed because schools and teachers weren’t held accountable. Nothing happened when my Elvis impersonating History teacher taught the wrong syllabus and the entire class failed. Nobody ever considered showing me a past paper or a mark scheme.
Now, this may have resulted in a better education, I don’t know. It was certainly more rounded but it’s inescapable that the focus of teaching has changed over the last 20 years and passing exam has become of paramount importance. Small wonder that we would get really good at doing what we’re chiefly held accountable for.
So, here’s what I propose:
1. Let’s speed up the process of moving to a system of single exam boards for each subject. This should do away with the incentive to inflate grades. And while we’re about it let’s expose and exterminate all other cause of grade inflation. Just to be on the safe side.
2. Let’s act as if all students can get at least a C grade and teach them accordingly. And while we’re at it why not act like they can all get A*s?
3. We’ll never get a 100% pass rate because #2 isn’t true. But we should get steadily rising results which we can be sure aren’t due to grade inflation because of #1
4. It’s been pointed out to me that our exam system purports to both rank students and display degrees  competence at something. It does neither well so let’s just settle on the latter. This should make #3 possible to achieve.
At that point we can all pat each other on the back for a job well done.
Alternatively, we could rethink exactly what exams are supposed to do and begin again. But that’s crazy talk!

Related reading on the GCSE ‘fiasco’

Geoff Barton’s impassioned and thoughtful blog posts
John Tomsett – This much (I think) I know about…the English Language GCSE debacle!
Andrew Old’s dissenting view here and here.

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