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Chris McGovern: Gove did his best but he failed. GCSEs have no credibility

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What are we to make of the current crop of GCSE results? At the higher grades (A* to C), passes in mathematics were up 4.8 per cent but they were down 1.9 per cent in english.  Averaged across all subjects, A* to C grades were up 0.7 per cent but the overall pass rate (A* to G) fell 0.3 per cent to what still remains the staggeringly high figure of 98.5 per cent. According to the education editor of The Times, this constitutes putting  “the genie of grade inflation back in its bottle”.

The Guardian headlined its GCSE results story as “pain for pupils as ghost of Gove haunts grades”. The former Education Secretary is being blamed for making the exams too hard. This stems, in part, from reducing the amount of teacher-marked components. A failure rate of 15 per 1000 means, apparently, that GCSE is too tough. Pupils and parents have taken to Twitter to vent their anger. Some teacher union leaders are outraged. In fact, no other Education Secretary has ever presided over such grade inflation in public examinations as the despised Mr Gove during his four years in office. It was not, however, what he wanted.

Two years ago we were in the middle of a row over his plan to ditch the GCSE altogether. It is, after all, an exam that lacks any real credibility. Gove wanted to restore the academically rigorous GCE O-Level. This ‘gold-standard’ examination is still produced in England and ‘sold’ abroad. However, it is excluded from the list of approved qualifications here. Effectively, therefore, it is banned. In education ‘super star’ state, Singapore, it is taken by around 80 per cent of pupils. Rigorous public examinations are fundamental to the success of all successful education systems.

The 4.8 per cent rise in A* to C grades in mathematics is commendable but we need to see it in the context of syllabus content that is taught three years earlier in the best performing education systems around the world. In other words, our 16-year-olds are sitting an exam set at a level taught to 13-year-olds in Shanghai. Depressing? Yes, but this is a self-inflicted wound. There is no reason why, for the purpose of university entrance, a grade C on the Hong Kong exams for 16 year-olds should be equivalent to a Grade A/A* on our GCSE. And yet this is the value placed on GCSE by the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC), part of a Europe-wide network providing an ‘official’ comparison of qualifications.

We need to raise the bar, as Gove recognized, but his attempt to restore O-Levels was thwarted by the Lib-Dems. Grade inflation of 65 per cent in grades of C and above since the GCSE was introduced back in 1988 has shot its credibility to pieces. Defeated over restoring O-Levels, Michael Gove’s promise of a more rigorous GCSE is already beginning to unravel. It is a contradiction in terms to have an examination that is both rigorous and all-ability. Even with the current system of differentiated papers in some subjects it has not worked. Fewer differentiated papers are planned for GCSE ‘Mark 2’.

We need an examination system that matches the needs of the pupils. This means academic exams for academic youngsters and top quality vocational exams for those whose strengths or inclinations lie in more practical areas and who seek a future in which they are employed.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
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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