By King Edward's, Aug 23 2018 03:16PM
"Our changes will make these qualifications more ambitious, with greater stretch for the most able; will prepare young people better for the demands of employment and further study; will address the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down, which have undermined students’ achievements for far too long; and will give pupils, parents, teachers, universities and employers greater confidence in the integrity and reliability of our qualifications system" Michael Gove MP, 9th April 2014.
Four years after giving that speech today schools and students up and down the country found out what these high aspirations actually meant in real terms. In real terms today I am exceptionally proud of the individual achievements our students, their parents and our staff have made in the face of a poorly considered national education experiment.
Greater stretch for the more able? The new GCSE has simply taken the A*/A boundaries and split them across three new grades 7,8 and 9. The new reality is not greater stretch or challenge but luck. The difference between these grade boundaries are exceptionally slim: a few raw marks or the outcome of one question can make the difference between a 7 and an 8 or an 8 or a 9. Hardly stretching but certainly taxing for the pupils and staff involved.
What about the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down: easy words to use with a neat political ring but is this what really happened? In reality the older generation trying to compare O levels to GCSEs got hot under the collar about standards but what they failed to understand is that the two qualifications are simply not comparable. Grade inflation was one way to look at the way grades had risen but it was also true that teachers and students had simply become much better and more qualified in teaching children to the test and whilst we still have testing teachers will always teach to the test; it is natural: who would want to do mastery level driving lessons with a useful non-examined section on motor mechanics as an aside. Most right minded people will choose the instructor who teaches to the test.
There is no doubt that more rigour was required at GCSE and the abandonment of course work is a positive step forward to level the playing field for all children. One of the outcomes of the loss of coursework - as predicted by many observers - has hit girls. Their methodical and diligent approach to coursework benefited them in the old system but they have been the main loser in the new system and boys inherent risk taking, last minute approach and resilence when working under pressure the new winners. A simple step to reduce grade inflation would have been to just alter the grade boundaries: no need for radical reform; content changes and the need to give publishers and exam boards reasons to make huge amounts of money from schools at a time of national austerity in the public sector.
In reality there was no pernicious damage; instead grade inflation has become grade stagflation as OFQUAL attempt to ensure that there is no political fallout from applying Mr Gove's rhetoric. Afterall IF they had then we would have seen both GCSE and A level results enjoy significant grade deflation creating a politically poisioned chalice for the current education secretary to either drink from - not very palatable - or to reform: again.
In reality the damage that has been done has been the imposition of an absurd amount of poorly managed change inflicted upon students and staff. For those not in the teaching profession it is hard to explain what this means. Perhaps the best example would be to imagine your company deciding to reform all of its working practices; policies; procedures; accounting and payroll systems; management information systems; website and communications protocols, procedures and systems and doing all of this at the same time. By the way you will be given no vision about what the end goal looks like - that's called cheating - and there are some limited instruction manuals but no help desk or customer service to refer to for support. You can perhaps imagine the chaos and stress such a change would cause.
Perhaps the most absurd issue was the group behind the change; not Mr Gove but the Universities, for it was they who clamoured for a raising of standards; they who bemoaned the poverty of education that new undergraduates arrived with.
Last week on A level results day there was little evidence of any such desire. Instead we witnessed prestigious and competitive university courses rolling over to take students who were well below the offer that they had been given. Add to this the new national quest for Universities to offer unconditional places to students then one can begin to understand the impact that this will have on academic motivation at 17 and the negative impact on Universities as they take undergraduates who - thanks to their unconditional offer strategy - are not qualified for the course they are going to study. It was then with some relief that I read last week that the government is now seriously considering introducing a ban on unconditional offers.
To sum up.
One man's mission to raise standards in education has been translated into much harder GCSE and A Level content and exam papers with much, much lower grade boundaries to ensure "grade comparability" [OFQUAL] i.e. the difference between the number of students getting certain grades is the same or similar to last year. In addition the very Universities who championed the changes and called for higher standards have been complicit in further undermining the system by dropping their own entry criteria to ensure that they get enough students through the door.
So a very, very heartfelt thank you and congratulations to all of our students and staff who have been put through an incredibly stressful process of raising standards so as to ensure that at the end of the day the grade profile of GCSEs and A Levels stays exactly the same. Sorry what was the point again?