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Chris McGovern: Exam league tables mean little when the toughest tests no longer count


New league tables for exam results place some of the country’s leading academic schools at the bottom of the pile. Not a single pupil at Eton or Harrow, for example, was able to achieve the ‘benchmark’ of five GCSEs at A* to C, including English and Mathematics. This is equivalent to relegating top Premier League soccer teams such as Chelsea and Manchester City to the lower reaches of non-league football. Quite a shock if you are a viewer of “Match of the Day” or follow one of these mega-rich footballing giants!

We may laugh at this topsy-turvy notion in a sporting context, but in the Alice in Wonderland world of education the impossible and absurd is a day-to-day occurrence.

Many of our best academic schools have, understandably, lost faith in the degraded GCSE exam.

Undemanding in content and supported for many years by rampant Weimar-style grade inflation, it is a ‘dead horse’. No amount of flogging is going to revive it. True, supposedly tougher syllabuses are now being taught, but the problems lie more with the exam questions and, especially, how they are marked. One can have any pass rate one wants, according to where one sets the grade boundaries.

The exam boards are competing to attract more candidates. In effect, this means that they are competing to be easier. The easier your examination, the more ‘buyers’ you will attract.

The mentality of the exam boards is illustrated by the way in which they used to ‘tip off’ teachers about the topics to be covered in particular exam papers. I helped bring this malpractice to the attention of a national newspaper. An undercover reporter was, subsequently, able to record secretly a chief examiner telling a group of teachers who had paid to attend an exam board seminar that: “We’re cheating. We’re telling you the cycle [of the compulsory question].” He advised teachers to “hammer exam technique” rather than to use the approach of  “proper educationists” and “teach the lot”. Examiners were also publishing textbooks geared to particular exams. The schools that bought the books gave their pupils a big advantage.

That all of this was going on was so obvious and so well known within the teaching profession that it should not have escaped the attention of successive governments. The naivety of politicians was unforgivable.  Former Education Secretary Michael Gove was the first to confront the issue and to clamp down on some of the wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, he was unable or unwilling to implement the solution to the central problem of the boards competing to be easier. He shied away from having a single exam board and, thereby, protected the vested interests of the producer of exams, the boards, rather than promoting the interests of the consumers – the children.

Against this background many academic schools, especially in the private sector, have opted out of the ordinary GCSE and chosen the slightly more rigorous international version – the IGCSE. However, IGCSE results no longer count for the league tables. The Government is desperate to protect the latest version of GCSE from competition. Any alternative, whether it be the International GCSE or the GCE O-Level that we still export to our economic rivals is, effectively, banned. By choosing to stick with what they consider to be a superior exam, the International GCSE, many of our best academic schools are being penalised by the league tables. Schools are being told to stick with, or to revert back to, the ‘dead horse’ exam; otherwise your school’s results will not count.

Meanwhile, the exam boards, very much part of the educational establishment, the Blob, are back to their ‘old tricks’. Whatever a new ‘tougher’ syllabus may require, it can be readily subverted. After all, the syllabus has to be ‘interpreted’. The competition to be easier and to attract more punters is ‘back on’.

The Times Educational Supplement recently summed up the current debacle rather neatly:

The Edexcel and OCR exam boards have complained that AQA’s specimen maths paper is not challenging enough and ministers have let it be known they are “absolutely furious” that Ofqual has not done more to prevent what they fear could become a “race to the bottom”.

The Blob has outflanked our naïve politicians, once again.

Returning to my football analogy – if education secretaries were football managers the cry they would hear from the terraces would be the one heard by the manager of many a failing and relegation-threatened team: “You don’t know what you’re doing!”.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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