Richard Cairns, head teacher of Brighton College, believes that the most able GCSE candidates are being marked down as a consequence of producing answers that are too sophisticated for the examination marking scheme. He has told The Daily Mail that, sometimes, “markers are marking things they know little about.” He observed that “children are being asked to jump through hoops and they can’t understand why, because they see beyond the hoop… It’s fundamentally a GCSE problem, because it’s one exam for all pupils.” He concluded that “GCSEs do a disservice to brighter children” because they “can’t see the point in the question because it’s self-evident.”
Mr Cairns is absolutely right, of course, but he is 29 years too late in his expression of concern. The deficiencies of GCSE have been “self-evident” since teaching for the exam commenced in 1986. I recall a specimen GCSE History paper from 1987 asking candidates why the Allies kept their D-Day invasion plan for the invasion of Normandy in 1944 “as secret as possible”. Another question read: “Write a draft of speech to be made by a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This speech will justify these actions: the hijacking of aircraft to Jordan in 1970; the shootings at Tel Aviv airport; and the attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games.”
Self-evidently dumb and dumbed-down questions like these have permeated GCSE exams across the full spectrum of subjects since its introduction. The real surprise, however, is not in the dilution of standards. The real surprise has been the compliant acquiescence of the teaching profession and politicians in what amounts to educational fraud.
Only since the economic consequences of poorly educated youngsters have begun to bite and as employers have become increasingly vocal in their expression of concern and as universities have had to run more and more ‘catch-up’ remedial courses, has government ‘come clean’ on what has been going on. Michael Gove set the ball of honesty rolling and, now, all the main parties appear to have accepted the reality of grade inflation and of a dumbed-down exam.
With this change in the direction of the political wind even a few head teachers, such Mr Cairns, have felt free to speak out. Better late than never, of course, but how one wishes that some among the massed ranks of high and mighty ‘collaborators’ in the teaching profession could have had the courage to speak out 29 years ago, or even 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Instead, we had complicity and silence from those who were intelligent enough to know the truth. And we had the National Union of Teachers proclaiming with jubilation that the introduction of GCSE “will be applauded throughout the teaching profession.”
Only one voice of any substantial status at the time publically challenged the wisdom of bringing in the new all-ability examination. Sir Rhodes Boyson MP was a former education minister and a former head teacher when, in February 1987, he wrote an article (entitled “Follow the Lewes Priory Four”) about the GCSE for “The Times Educational Supplement”. He asked this question: “ Is it possible that the new GCSE examination is being introduced by the educational establishment at this time to make it more difficult to revert, like most of our competitors, to a selective system?” He added: “I do regret that the independent schools have not yet had the independence of mind to set up a separate O-Level examining board of their own so that we would continue to have a benchmark against which to judge this new examination.”
Mr Cairns is right to sound a belated alarm about the failure of GCSE to meet the needs of able pupils. However, in the end, his sector of education, the elite public schools, were ‘collaborators’, too.