Friday, April 19, 2024
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GCSE – the exam that fails us all


GCSE results are out and the pass rates and top grades are up. What was all the fuss about? Talk about piling unnecessary pressure on the kids! Even the overall pass rate – grades 1/G or above – was unchanged at 98.3 per cent; a statistic on which it would be difficult to improve.

Oh, the agony and the ecstasy of it all! Here we have an examination, though, if the truth were admitted, that fails everyone. Grade inflation, around 60 per cent since its introduction in 1988, was for years explained away as the result of rising standards.

When he became education secretary in 2010, Michael Gove, to his credit, came clean. He admitted that the qualifications currency had become devalued and needed an overhaul. An undercover Daily Telegraph film of examiners admitting to ‘cheating’ rather clinched the point for Gove. 

A new, tougher generation of GCSEs was ordered. Course work, well recognised as susceptible to cheating, was mostly removed and syllabuses were made a bit more rigorous. A BBC investigation revealed that a GCSE mathematics examination of the Welsh board (WJEC), but sat across the UK, was at the level expected of primary school pupils in South Korea.

The first of the new, ‘tougher’ GCSEs – mathematics and English – were taken in 2017. To distinguish them from the previous generation, a 9 to 1 grading system replaced the previous A* to G. Most subjects are now ‘new GCSEs’. A handful of minority ancient and foreign languages remain to complete the transition to ‘new GCSEs’ next year.

So, a ‘tougher’ exam brings even better results. Was the government’s exam regulating boss largely correct, then, when she told the Sunday Times that ‘all our kids are brilliant’?

Sadly, her giddy vanity was misplaced. I do not, in any way, wish to denigrate the efforts of GCSE candidates. They can sit only the exam paper that is put in front of them. Reaching the finishing line after doing the best one can is worth celebrating. Most of us, though, including most young people, would prefer to hear the truth rather than PR propaganda from the Blob.

Not all young people are brilliant and most are not brilliant at all, certainly not in an academic sense. They are wasting their lives away on GCSE courses. Far better for them and for the country would be a vocational pathway from the age of 14. And by that age, in current terminology, they should have already reached a GCSE ‘pass’ standard. This was set at 15 [sic] per cent when the first new and tougher GCSE maths appeared in 2017.

It rose to 21 per cent last year. This year’s percentage should be known by the time this article is published, but it is unlikely to signify more than a certificate of incompetence.

The secret of the high pass rate has little to do with candidate performance. The baseline for setting grade boundaries for the new GCSE is the inflated pass rate of the old GCSE. The government calls this maintenance of grade pass percentages ‘comparable outcomes’. It would be more accurately described as manipulating the figures. And the exam board that provides the best pass rate attracts more candidates and more income – a race to the bottom in terms of standards.

With regard to grading, there is a simple way out of the dreadful mess and blatant dishonesty in which we now find ourselves. We should return to the pre-GCSE, O-Level system of norm referencing. Quite simply it would mean that each year the same percentage of candidates would be awarded a specific grade. There would be a normal statistical curve. Employers and universities would then know the broad ranking of a GCSE grade within a cohort of 16-year-olds.

Imperfect as this system might be, it is better than the current alternative.

It would, also, restore some integrity to the examination system.

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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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