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Ofqual and Honest Damian, the dunce’s best friends


GCSE results are out and, would you believe it, they are better than ever, even at the top grades. Across the UK, excluding Scotland which has its own exam system, the overall pass rate is up 0.5 per cent to 66.9 per cent. Once again, Northern Ireland, with its grammar schools system, had by far the best results. Its overall pass rate was 81.1 per cent.

What are we to make of all of this? Tougher exams, in England at least, are producing even better results. Quite a puzzle until you work out how we are being hoodwinked and how far the entire public exam system has been corrupted.

It seems to be constructed on the guidelines set out by Groucho Marx: ‘The secret of success is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’

On the surface, it seems honest of the government to admit that these GCSE results, like those of last week’s A-Levels, have been manipulated. The exams are a bit harder and so grade boundaries have been lowered to ensure that the pass rate can improve. Such an admission does not make the fraud being perpetrated any less of a fraud. Describing the revised exams as ‘world class’ and then faking the results by manipulating the grade boundaries is dishonest in the extreme.

This year, in some subjects, a mark of not much more than 20 per cent will ensure a good pass and, eventually, access to our best universities and to the professions.

On GCSE results day Education Secretary Damian Hinds explained the dishonesty of the process in terms that were intended to have us believe it was honest:

To make sure that pupils who take the new GCSEs are not at a disadvantage, the independent qualifications regulator Ofqual uses a statistical method called ‘comparable outcomes’. This ensures that broadly the same proportion of pupils will pass and reach the equivalent of an A grade as in previous years . . .

Should there be any doubt as to how well things are going, he provides this extra reassurance:

In fact, there are fewer 19-year-olds who have not passed English and maths GCSEs than ever before. These figures are testament to our brilliant teachers.

Backing up Honest Damian’s guarantees is Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation). Last year its boss, Sally Collier, told the Sunday Times that ‘all our kids our brilliant’. Now she has pronounced that this week’s GCSE results will reflect the ‘considerable effort’ of schools and pupils and adds: ‘We have used the tried and tested principle of comparable outcomes to ensure standards are maintained. Senior examiners have reviewed papers to make sure the quality of work is appropriate to the grades awarded.’ 

Prioritising ‘effort’ over performance is at the heart of the dishonesty. The Alice in Wonderland notion that ‘all must have prizes’ has been embedded in our education system for some time. It has the status of holy writ. A few days ago it was discovered that Ofqual is even prepared to rewrite its own rules at the last minute to eliminate failure:

GCSE pupils who failed the new tougher science exam have been handed a free pass by the watchdog after it moved the boundaries, it has emerged . . . Ofqual has taken the highly unusual step of intervening to save science students from failing.

Ofqual sees itself as a search and rescue facility. Had a breakdown in your exam performance? Contact Ofqual, your fourth emergency service, and we will sort it out. Even the TES (formerly the Times Educational Supplement), the teachers’ newspaper, was forced to admit that the Ofqual’s intervention was ‘extraordinary’, albeit, in its jaundiced opinion, justified.

Such is current level of fraud in our examination system that even our ‘all-ability’ comprehensive schools have decided that most GCSE passes are counterfeit currency, worthy of of junk status in educational terms. They are not being taken in by the government’s pretence-of-honesty strategy and are tightening up selection for A-Level courses. A Times study has discovered that 40 per cent of so-called comprehensive schools are requiring some top grades for entry on to A-Level courses. One ‘comprehensive’ sixth-form college is demanding an average of top grades across eight subjects. Even that temple of comprehensive schooling, Holland Park School in London, is demanding top grades for studying a subject at A-Level. Selection is back with a vengeance!

Government ministers and the non-barking exams watchdog, Ofqual, are taking us for fools. Public examination grades should reveal the truth about performance, not conceal the facts. Publishing percentage marks scored, rather than fake grades, would lessen the current deception.

Schools preach to pupils the importance of honesty but too often those to whom children’s futures are entrusted, not least those responsible for public exams, practise dishonesty. Small wonder, then, that young people feel confused, let down and disengaged when the reality of the outside world intrudes. To paraphrase Chaucer in modern English:

. . . if gold rust, what then will iron do?

For if [he] be foul in whom we trust

No wonder that a common man should rust . . .


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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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