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.