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Chris McGovern: Prepare for ministerial platitudes about GCSEs. The right answer is to ditch them


The annual GCSE results row will soon be upon us. On Thursday 20th August, the newspapers will balance the happy smiles of A* candidates with the usual debate about standards.

When the first results appeared back in 1988, my concern that the GCSE was easier than the GCE O-Level it replaced was described  by an exam chief on the front page of The Times as “an aberration”. In contrast, a recent article by Alice Thomson in the same newspaper was headed: “GCSEs are agony for everyone. Just ditch them.”

My aberrant view back in 1988 is now fairly widely held, at least outside the educational establishment, the ‘Blob’. Most commentators and politicians these days seem to accept the fact of rampant grade inflation and the watering down of standards. Go back ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, though, and such views, especially within the teaching profession, were regarded as truly heretical. The very, very few teachers who spoke out had their livelihoods taken away.

I well recall a major article written on the matter by Melanie Phillips for The Guardian. She observed that had an equivalent suppression of free speech taken place in the Soviet bloc as was happening to critics of GCSE in England, it would have caused outrage in our country. One consequence of the intolerance of criticism of the new exam was silence and unquestioning acceptance from a teaching profession that was mostly compliant in any case.

Journalists, these days, should be asking head teachers, chief inspectors and senior officials, “What did you do during the GCSE wars of the 1980s and 1990s when it all went so wrong?” The answer, of course, is nothing. Even if they had concerns, they kept their heads well below the parapet.

To his credit, Michael Gove, as Education Secretary, was prepared to acknowledge the failure of GCSE. Constrained by his Lib Dem coalition partners, though, the best he could do was to order a toughening-up of the syllabuses. These will be taught from September.

We have been promised, in addition, that next month’s results will reflect more rigorous marking of existing syllabuses. Will tougher marking and tougher syllabuses make any difference to the current exam pass rate fraud? Unlikely! Grade boundaries are all that matter and these can be set to ensure any pass rate desired. In other words, a rigorous exam paper can have a high pass rate if the grade boundaries are set low. Equally, a ‘dumbed-down’ exam can have a low pass rate if the grade boundaries are set high. In effect, the Government, through a ‘nudge and a wink’ and a bit of pressure can have any pass rate it likes.

So, here is my prediction for the response of the education secretary/schools’ minister to this year’s GCSE results: “I would like to congratulate all of this year’s cohort of GCSE students and their teachers. Althought the overall pass rate is slighlty down, this reflects tougher marking rather than any decline in performance compared with previous years. We are turning a corner in terms of making educational standards in this country match the best in the world.”

Sadly, until we scrap the current GCSE exam and rethink the entire 14-18 programme of education, little of fundamental importance is likely to change. We will continue to be ‘also rans’ in the international race for educational excellence and for employable school leavers. It is time for the ‘Blob’ and for the Government to cease its annual, August self-congratulation.

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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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