GCSE and A level results: Three steps to make things better

Graph from the BBC showing the increasing GCSE passes. No one thinks this rise is due to increasing educational standards and no one thinks this years fall is due to a fall in standards.

Graph from the BBC showing the increasing GCSE passes. No one thinks this rise is due to increasing educational standards and no one thinks this years fall is due to a fall in standards.

As my own children approach the year in which they will sit GCSE and A level exams, the annual brouhaha  over exam results feels a bit more personal. And my anger over the betrayal of students and the governments abnegation of responsibility in this field grows more intense.

“It wasn’t like this when I were a lad ..”. No really: it wasn’t. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the results were always the same: for example the top 7.5% (I think that was the number) received an A, the next n% received a B and so on. This approach served to discriminate amongst the candidates. But it didn’t register whether students knew more or less than in previous years.

Then exams were changed in many ways simultaneously. Syllabuses were reduced, continuous assessment introduced, exam boards became wholly-owned by book publishers, and ‘absolute’ marking became the norm. The result was decades of grade inflation and political bickering.

Many educational changes ‘since I were a lad’ have been really positive, and I suspect the general standard of teaching is higher. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that the fact that exam results began to ‘improve’ after 1986  reflects any actual ‘improvement’ in education. In the same way, nobody believes that this year’s small fall in A* to C grades reflects any actual ‘decline’ in educational standards.

It seems that the exam results are telling us nothing about educational standards and this is obviously unsatisfactory. And all this has happened during a period in which schools and exam boards have been subject to more inspections than at anytime in history. I won’t go into the causes of this shameful and ‘almost corrupt’ episode, but the answers are simple,

  • Firstly, publishers should not be allowed to own or influence exam boards. ‘Competition’ to produce the easiest exams only drives down standards. Exam boards should set standards and exams, and publishers should produce books that teach the subject in general, not how to pass particular exams in the subject. Ideally there would be only one exam board for each subject.
  • Secondly, grade inflation should be eliminated by making A*, A and B grades correspond to fixed fractions of the candidates. Grade A* would mean the top 5% (say), A the next 10% (say) and B the next 20%. However the C mark should be marked on achievement against a standard rather than against other candidates. This allows improvements in education to be reflected in improved results but keeps the significance of higher marks.
  • Thirdly, governments then need to stop changing the exam system every few years. A politically-balanced commission should consider changes every 20 years with no ability to change the rules in intervening years. It needs that length of time to measure the effect of any changes which have been made.

I could go on, but I won’t. Education is a precious and important activity and the more kerfuffle there is around this topic the more difficult it is to make the learning magic shimmer.  So I will just wish all teachers and students best wishes for the last weeks of the summer holiday and the start of the new term.


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12 Responses to “GCSE and A level results: Three steps to make things better”

  1. Bill Bronsky Says:

    Michael…. Your “secondly” point above…. how wold you compare one year with the next?

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Well, its difficult and ultimately can’t be done rigourously. The last years grade inflation and the last two years of grade reductions show that even nominally ‘absolute’ standards don’t work. By having a ‘C’ grade – which might be called ‘pass’ or similar – that would ensure that people who had a qualification had some basic competence in that subject. For GCSE that’s all people want to know. The fraction in the ‘C’ category could rise or fall from year to year – only the upper ‘competitive’ categories would be fixed fractions of the candidate population. Does that make sense to you?

      • Edmond Hui Says:

        I agree with Michael that some sort of ‘pass’ grade is appropriate, but it is in the end impossible to compare one year with another because the syllabus has to change over time. Almost everything I learnt at A level biology has been changed or affected by recent advances in genetics. If you look at my grade from then you have no idea about what I know about modern genetics, or indeed how I would have learnt that subject had I been taught. All you would know is how well I did against my cohort and therefore how I am likely to perform against others of my age. If my A level exam was based on my absolute knowledge of the syllabus of the time, today you would know literally nothing useful about me from my result.

        As an employer I admit to being quite simplistic- I look at grades and ask ‘how good is the candidate compared to other candidates’ rather than ‘how much stuff does this candidate know’ since with the exception of some maths and English, almost none of their syllabuses (syllabi?) map precisely onto what I actually need them to know.

  2. Edmond Hui Says:

    Thank you. Beautifully written without reference to our friends Norm and Stan who only confuse and annoy. There really should be no debate, and as knowledge always changes over time exams should ignore the absolute ‘achievement’ and simply examine how students have done compared to others of their year. Whether we like it or not, it’s like a horse race. The finishing order is the only thing people should care about because the going changes from year to year.

  3. Bernard Naylor Says:

    From 2015, young people will continue in full time education/training until they are 18. So why have a public examination (GCSE) at all at 16? But, of course, in-school assessment should continue. With GCSE out of the way (!), the next question is: what are ‘A’ levels for? The discussion suggests to me either a confusion about the right answer to that question, or so many ‘right answers’ that confusion of purpose is the inevitable consequence. It certainly seems to me that the horse race analogy is completely wrong, because, at A level the ‘runners’ are just starting out on the great race of life, and to talk about a ‘finishing order’ at that point seems wholly inappropriate. An assessment at 18 ought, as far as possible, to describe: 1) what a person has learned so far (and not necessarily just the bookish things) and 2) what is their development potential.
    One of my children did the International Baccalaureate. This seems to me a much better academic challenge than A level; it didn’t fall into the UK trap of over-specialisation too early. In addition, his college made room in their curriculum for experiential learning and reported back on this as part of normal accountability.
    And shouldn’t we at least give a nod towards the country which is consistently said to have the best education system in the world: Finland? There, children don’t start full time formal school until they are seven, and they have no public examination until they are about to leave compulsory full time education at 18/19. As I understand it, they have a rigorous school inspection system, but it is supportive and corrective (of teachers) rather than judgmental. Our system seems fixated on saying some people (who are not yet 20!) have ‘failed’. The longer I live, the more fatuous that seems to me.

    • Edmond Hui Says:

      Funnily enough I don’t disagree with your criticism of the horse racing analogy. It may well be inappropriate to have a race at all. My point is that the GCSEs are a de facto race, but as Michael says, the race is currently organised so that no sensible result actually occurs. All I meant was that if you’re going to have a race, then record the result. If you say let’s not race at all- we should just teach the horses to run, I’m fine with that.

      I do disagree with your ‘assessment at 18’ points, though, because 1) what the person has learnt so far and not just the bookish things will not be what the assessment measures. If you have an assessment, it will be of what students and their teachers will have prepared for the purpose of performing at the assessment. Appropriately for this blog I think there is a touch of heisenberg about that!
      2)How do you define ‘potential’ for the purpose of assessment?

      And you have replaced ‘examination’ with ‘assessment’, but if the result are public, they will be used for the same purposes- what is the difference? Our system is not fixated on saying some people have failed. Our population is fixated on the ranking that people achieve as a result of public examinations. As many ‘win’ and ‘succeed’ as ‘lose’ and ‘fail’. The emphasis is in the eye of the beholder- but if you don’t want society to judge, don’t have the assessment / examination. Just have confidential in-school assessments. Education for the individual. Let employers figure out their own way to figure out who fits their organisation.

  4. Felix Oxley (@VinylTiger) Says:

    You could reliably gauge performance over time by

    i) having a large pool of questions from which each year’s exam is drawn whilst new questions are added to cover new areas, and

    ii) using the overall performance of a student on an exam against their performance on any particular question to determine the level of difficulty of each question,

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Yes, those are sensible suggestions, but I think that there will be problems with all approaches towards measuring year-to-year variations in ‘standards’. And in teh last 20 years or so procedures have been in place to ensure exactly that. However, no one believes these procedures worked. It is exactly because of this that I think for the ‘competitive grades’ A*, A and B should indicate in which percentile of the cohort a student’s mark lies.

  5. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Too busy for a proper post today so I’m going to reblog this interesting reflection on recent examination results from Protons for Breakfast. I had a croissant myself.

  6. Michael Merrifield Says:

    If I may address each of your suggestions in turn:

    1) Why have multiple exam boards at all? Even if you eliminate the link to publishers, the boards will still have a vested interest in making their exams easier than their competitors, as they want a larger share of the market. In my role as admissions tutor assessing grades of incoming undergraduates, it is notable that the International Baccalaureate grades have retained their value over many years. The IB is controlled by a not-for-profit board, whose sole aim is to ensure parity between years. Surely, this is a better model to follow.

    2) For the higher grades, why not just return a percentile for the individual student in their cohort as well as a board-assigned letter grade. That way, the exam boards could continue to inflate the number of As without anyone caring very much, universities and potential employers would have a way of assessing the relative merits of students in the cohort, and the jeopardy faced by students of falling at the 10.01 percentile would disappear.

    3) I am not sure that setting the exam system in stone for such a long time is a good idea. Suppose some brilliant new on-line assessment system were to be invented next year which could revolutionize learning (unlikely, I agree, but possible!). Should we really have to wait until 2033 to allow students to benefit?

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:


      What excellently made points, all well made and I don’t disagree with any of them. I don’t hold up my ideas as ‘the answer’ just as an example of that the fact there are simple things we could do to improve matters;

      1. I agree a single exam board is a good idea but I felt that the link to publishers was the most pernicious aspect of the current system. In the ‘old days’ several exam boards seemed to co-exist reasonably well without driving down standards.
      2. Yes, indeed. Good point.
      3. I think his flexibility needs to be balanced by the desperate need for stability. No system is perfect, but if it stays still then teachers and institutions within the system can adapt with a time constant of a few years. When ‘everything changes’ every few years, teachers are driven into despair at the need to invent new systems of work, parents are bewildered, and employers don’t have a clue what the qualifications mean. The old QCDA (good riddance) had a rolling 5 year plan to revise syllabuses – i.e. they began revising a syllabus after it had only produced a single cohort of students. Such rapid changes are intrinsically unstable.

      Anyway. All the best


  7. stringph Says:

    In the byegone era of fixed percentages the exam results told us nothing about educational standards, except relatively between students and schools in any given year. Was that situation unsatisfactory?
    Conversely today, if we accept that, as you say, exam results also tell us nothing about educational standards except relatively between students and schools in any given year, the situation is unsatisfactory?
    I don’t see how GCSE results could ever tell us that much about changes in educational standards in the first place, because pupils and schools can choose whether they take more or fewer exams and can choose which subjects to take. A change in the average mark or number of C grades could just reflect schools deciding to put more or fewer students in for one subject or other.

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