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HomeNewsThe GCSE ‘dodgy dossiers’ that cast false doubt on grammar schools

The GCSE ‘dodgy dossiers’ that cast false doubt on grammar schools


Has schooling based on selection had its day? A much-publicised study by King’s College London claims that pupil attainment is largely due to genetic inheritance rather than to attending a selective school.

Another indictment of school selection, from academics at Durham University, has followed:

‘Grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. There is no reason for them to exist.’

This is a surprising conclusion. Only 5 per cent of schools are grammars. It is a predominantly comprehensive school system that has given Britain what David Cameron told his party conference in 2015 is ‘the lowest social mobility in the developed world’.

The foundations on which both the King’s and the Durham studies are based should concern us. Their ‘research’ depends overmuch on the reliability of GCSE results for measuring pupil attainment.

The erosion of standards that defines this all-ability exam is not a context explained by the research. Its introduction in 1988 was at the expense of the GCE O-Level, the more rigorous grammar school exam.

The consequent collapse in standards was vividly demonstrated by the BBC in 2016. It arranged for a group of fifteen-year-old South Korean children to sit an hour-long version of GCSE maths. Most needed only around fifteen minutes to complete it. After having a bit of a giggle about how easy it was, they explained that GCSE is set at the level of primary school (age 8-13) maths in South Korea. The OECD has come to a similar conclusion about mathematical attainment in the UK. It ranks it around three years behind the best of the Asia Pacific.

The GCSE maths exam, clearly, under-tested the Koreans. They could do no more than attain full marks. Even with a new higher grade introduced last summer, the GCSE exam is a poor vehicle for identifying the most able candidates, such as many at grammar schools.

The task is not made any easier by the fact that ‘raw scores’ are converted into what are called ‘uniform scores’ for the purpose of grading. A ‘uniform score’ of 100 per cent can be attained with a raw score of significantly less than 100 per cent.

The problem with using GCSE for measuring attainment of many grammar school pupils is that it does not discriminate sufficiently at the top end of the ability range. It is no coincidence that the OECD’s highest-ranked school system, Singapore, still uses a version of that former UK grammar school exam – the GCE O-Level. It is still produced in the UK – by the Cambridge Board (UCLES) – but in effect it is banned here.

As education secretary, Michael Gove recognised the problem with the examination system and sought to restore to it some integrity and rigour. His slightly more demanding GCSEs started being phased in last summer with new-style papers in English and maths.

To get around the obstacle of the papers being, relatively, a bit harder, the examination boards have been required by their supervisory body (Ofqual) to lower the pass mark. It fell as low as 15 per cent in maths.

Setting a low pass mark for what remains a comparatively easy exam means, of course, that more children pass. It also means that the distinction between the performance of academically selective schools and non-selective schools – grammars and comprehensives – is blurred.

The credibility of both recent studies is undermined by their over-reliance on GCSE grades to measure final attainment. Partly because too low an academic ceiling is set by GCSE, it is difficult for the most able pupils at secondary school to record as much progress as less able pupils on the complicated new ‘Progress 8’ measure.

Scoring 100 per cent on their GCSE maths paper would not allow the South Korean group to show any progress since primary school. On the Durham survey they would be at the bottom of the progress table. This is the situation in which some grammar school children find themselves.

The educational establishment would have us believe that GCSE results provide a valid educational foundation on which to construct all sorts of research claims. They do no such thing.

According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, for example, when GCSE was introduced in 1988 the ‘pass’ rate (A to C) was 41.9 per cent. By last summer, 2017, that pass rate (A* to C or equivalent 7, 8, 9) had risen to 66.3 per cent – a percentage increase of 58.2 per cent in 29 years.

Better still has been the improved performance of the brightest pupils. Those gaining the highest grade rose from 8.4 per cent in 1988 to 20 per cent in 2017 – an increase of 138 per cent and amounting to a fifth of all candidates.

To offset the grade inflation Michael Gove introduced a higher ninth grade on a new 1-9 scale. It was phased in for English and maths last summer and was attained by 3.1 per cent of candidates. Once this extra grade applies to all subjects it will help to gauge more accurately the performance of grammar schools relative to non-selective schools. It will not, however, bridge the three-year attainment gap with the best performing education systems of the Asia Pacific. For that, we will need to raise standards considerably from a much earlier age.

The conclusions about grammar school performance reached by both the King’s study and the Durham study are flawed. Since over a fifth of candidates are now attaining the highest grade in most subjects it is impossible to distinguish between able pupils in grammar schools and those in state comprehensive schools.

The research findings qualify as ‘dodgy dossiers’ that have generated a frenzy of anti-grammar school fake news!

The case for grammar schools is simple. They allow academically able children to be taught in line with their aptitude. The all-ability GCSE has been an insult to their intelligence for too long and has failed to challenge either them or their teachers. The new generation of GCSEs has an extra grade that may help but not in the context of last summer’s 15 per cent ‘pass’ mark.

The case in favour of a totally comprehensive school system is equally simple. Ensure that UK comprehensives match those in South Korea, Singapore or Shanghai by making the GCSE a 13+ exam. After sitting the GCSE at age thirteen, pupils should follow either an academic or a technical/vocational pathway – ‘grammar’ school or technical school.

Then it could be: ‘Welcome, post-Brexit UK, to the wonderful world of 21st century educational superstar status!’

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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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