Back in August 2012 the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, was leading the annual GCSE results celebration:
‘Tens of thousands of young people are today reaping the rewards of their hard work over the last two years. It is right that we congratulate students on their results and thank the inspirational heads, teachers and support staff that have helped them succeed. They can all be proud of their achievements.’
August 2017, five years on, and Nick is still cheerleading:
‘Today, hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds find out the results of two years or more of hard work and study. They will now move on to the next phase of their education well equipped for what lies ahead, and I would like to thank their teachers whose dedication and hard work has helped them achieve success.’
This time round, however, the minister admitted to the Daily Mail that exam results in the past were not worth celebrating quite as much as annual ministerial statements had suggested. It was an unacceptable scandal, he told the Mail, to be lauding exam passes that, according to the OECD, and uniquely amongst developed countries, place our youngsters at a lower skills level than their grandparents.
In matters educational, sadly, the slow learning curve of successive governments since the 1980s has proved expensive for the country as a whole and for young people in particular. Before he was sacked as Education Secretary, Michael Gove set out to reverse what Nick Gibb now recognises were ‘years of decline’. Good for Gove and good for Gibb, too! Sadly, identifying the problem is one thing, solving it is another.
The government has been right, of course, to ‘beef up’ syllabuses for both GCSE and A-Level, even if the extent of ‘beefing up’ is, in some cases, rather questionable. How far, for example, does the placing on the syllabus of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Blackadder increase the demands of A-Level English? True, when their inclusion for advanced level study was first proposed, government sources claimed the exam boards were ‘having a laugh’. The laugh, unfortunately, was on the Department for Education, and it was subsequently rubbed in by further ‘celeb’ texts thrown into the A-Level syllabus mix, including tweets from Caitlin Moran, a TV discourse by Jamie Oliver and a script extract from ‘Horrible Histories’.
For all my concerns, however, the restoration of a linear end-of-course exam plus additional syllabus content does make the next generation of GCSEs and A-Levels more demanding than the ‘knowledge-lite’ versions being phased out. The first step in the necessary reform process – tougher papers – is, to some extent, being completed. But alongside raising the bar academically comes the need to improve the quality of teaching so that pupils can cope with the greater demands being placed on them. It is clear from the the intervention of the exam ‘watchdog’, Ofqual, that more rigorous exams have not been matched by more rigorous teaching. We have had, instead, the declaration by the Ofqual head, Sally Collier, that ‘all kids are brilliant’.
As I reported in my previous blog, this year’s ‘pass’ mark fell to as low as 15 per cent for one maths GCSE board. The government is living in a fool’s paradise if it thinks it can raise standards this way. Of course we want tougher exams, but they need to be structured around credible grade boundaries that are not used to camouflage failure as success, fiction as fact. The foundation stone for exam success should be good and academically rigorous teaching. It is to be hoped that the DfE can work this out in a shorter time than the three decades it took to understand how far GCSEs and A-Levels have been dumbed down.
Far better that in future years a schools minister can celebrate the achievement of a ‘real’ education rather than a fake one, a gold standard exam currency rather than a counterfeit one. Far better that we follow the lesson we teach our children in school – that honesty and integrity are preferable to dishonesty and deceit.