We’ve just had the latest round of GCSE, AS and A2 results and for once the results have fallen. Whether by the direct influence of Mr Gove, examination boards taking a big hint or even statistical anomaly, there was a clear fall in grades. Schools were angry about English GCSE marking and about the corresponding fall in pupils achieving the A-C grade. At A Level the number of A and A* grades fell. The consequence according to the tabloids was that GCSE students didn’t make the grades needed to get into sixth form college and A level students didn’t make the grade to get into the University of their choice.. or did they? Actually everything will have sorted itself out over the next few days. I know of a number of University students now happily on their way to the University of their choice because the offer was revised to accommodate them (because everyone did slightly worse than expected). Since everyone suffered in the same way the impact was a shift of administration to the Universities to sort out the mess but ultimately the rankings of students stayed the same and there were still the same number of available places.
What seems clear to me is that the whole system is imprecise. During the London 2012 Olympics there was discussion about Britain’s greatest ever Olympian followed by bizarre attempts to compare a rower who competed a few years ago in a team sport with a cyclist who partipates on his own and in teams. Regularly footballers will be compared with those of a different era. Everyone likes to think that they went to school when exams were at their hardest, when you couldn’t use calculators and there was no such thing as modules. Following the football analogy it seems apparent to me that it must be true that modern footballers can achieve greater things but they aren’t hampered by poor pitches, poor boots, kit which weighs a ton in the rain, unscientific training regimes, extracurricular betting and boozing as part of the training regime, rules on numbers of substitutes, and a more laissez-faire attitude to the scything tackle. Similarly players of old could take a breather with the backpass and wore protective equipment straight from the trenches. George Best in his prime, in the latest equipment, would still run rings round modern defenders but possibly for only half an hour. Any comparison over time must be governed by the prevailing conditions and the testing regime.
So why do we want to compare other than for vanity? New Labour had an objective of a percentage of children going on to higher education. The objective was put in place to position Britain to compete on global terms with the standard of workforce. In particular it was trying to address barriers of aspiration and opportunity. As with the comparison of standards we are now in different times and, accordingly, we need to change the objective. Higher education standards are very different, our economy has changed and so has our competition. Its time for a different approach. No-one around the world is interested in how many graduates Britain has – New Labour’s target was simply a measure of whether the barriers were being overcome. The teachers don’t escape criticism either – teaching standards aren’t uniformly excellent and they are not all saints. There isn’t a robust enough sanction for the many lazy and under-performing teachers. For any teachers taken aback by this I have personal experience of teachers who cannot teach, who don’t actually like children and have the wrong motivation. The consolation is that this is true of every industry and it was true in the education I received too – let’s just be honest about it. If all the efforts were focused on quality of education – making Britain’s children the best they can be – the “market” will sort out the rest for us.
Which brings me back to the exam grades. For years the pass marks have been adjusted in arrears produce the right number of candidates at each grade. This is inevitable given the difficulty of producing examination papers of precisely the same difficulty year on year. There is a further complication with the variety of examination boards which have sprung up – they now seem to rival the number of world heavyweight boxing titles. It seems to me that there should only be a single examination board so that there can be a true comparison between every child taking a GCSE in English for example. This would also then stop the creation of ridiculous examination subjects. When all the marking is done there would then be a division into five equal groupings of marks – the top 20% get a grade A and the bottom 20% get a grade E. There could be no creep of examination results each year, employers would be able to understand the relative strengths of candidates without having to research the examination boards and there would be much greater clarity for schools, teachers and Government. The control of what our children are being taught would be with the Education Department through the examination boards.
We have more to worry about currently than the petty squabbling between Government, examination boards, schools and newspapers. For decades there used to be similar perpetual time-wasting over the subjective setting of interest rates until this was just handed over to the Bank Of England Monetary Policy Committee. It was an obvious and elegant solution to a thorny problem of many years. Mr Gove, Sort It Out once and for all!