GCSE and A level exams: parental reflections

My two sons have just received the results of their ‘A’ level and GCSE exams. Thank you for asking: both did very well.

My elder son will be off to Bristol University to study Civil Engineering, and the younger son will be moving into the sixth form of a nearby school.

Parentally, I am vicariously proud. But mainly relieved.

Here are my reflections.


GCSEs are a mess. They are both too easy and too hard.

Too easy? Yes  –

  • My son got 100% in 5 exams. He is good, but not perfect!
  • He achieved A* in Music – the only child in his school to do so – but he is still being asked to study additional music theory to be allowed to continue to ‘A’ level music.
  • Similarly, A* in Maths is not sufficient to allow to him to study Further Maths.

In athletic terms it is as if sporting adjudicators simply refused to raise the bar in a high jump to find out just how high athletes could jump.

Too hard? Yes: Anything less than a grade C is counted as a ‘failure’ thus effectively categorising around 30% of students as failures and providing no opportunity to for them to demonstrate their abilities.

By ‘30% of students’ I mean one in three of us – the people who live in England and Wales. Do we really believe they are ‘failures’?

In athletic terms it is as if even the lowest setting of the high jump bar tripped up every third athlete.

Too Easy and Too hard? If we compound this fundamental problem with the way fluctuations in the results are used to attack teachers and schools then we have a recipe for dysfunction.

For the last year the majority of my son’s lessons focussed on passing exams, not on details of the subject under study. This has definitely helped his marks and helped the school, but has done nothing for his enthusiasm for the subjects he has been studying.

From a parental perspective I am just glad to be no longer involved.

‘A’ levels

One important purpose of ‘A’ level courses is to prepare students for University or other further study: they are not usually an end in themselves.

And the purposes of the grading system is to discriminate amongst the students, and in particular to discriminate amongst the most able students.

The problem is that – in Physics at least – the syllabus has been reduced and and there has been around two decades of grade inflation.

As a consequence many universities ask for A* grades. 

However  the grade A* needs ‘almost perfect’ marks – which requires a very particular kind of student and programme of study. In contrast, at University, a course average mark of around 70% is usually sufficient to gain a first class degree.

My thought is that ‘A’ levels are certainly challenging, but they are not challenging enough. And the marking scheme needs to change.


I have said this before, but please forgive me if I say it again: we need to change how we grade exams.

Efforts to ‘maintain standards’ from year to year to year to year are – regrettably – laughable.

Maintaining standards’ in the face of a changing syllabus is impossible and probably meaningless.

My suggestion is this: the grades A*, A and B should reflect only the ranking order of the student.

For example:

  • A* should indicate that a student is in the top (say) 5% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year
  • A should indicate that a student is in the next 10% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year.
  • B should indicate that a student is in the next 10% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year.

After this there could be grades in which the fraction of students can change – perhaps they should be called a merit or a pass.

The percentage of students who ‘pass’ would be allowed to change to allow more students to pass should teaching standards change

But the purpose of exams is to assess students. It is (IMHO) invidious to use exams for the additional purpose of judging schools and teachers.

It may be reasonable to use a school’s or teacher’s exam results as an aid to judgement of a school or teacher – but hateful to use the results as a substitute for judgement

Our schools are full of hard working and inspiring teachers who are continuously being worn down by perennial threats. We should be supporting and not threatening these precious souls.

The Scandal

The scandal is that the government has outsourced the entire exam system to a number of bodies entirely controlled by multinational publishing companies.

By controlling the syllabus and exams the publishers create a ‘market’ for their text books in which no other company can compete. This is very profitable, but not obviously in the interest of the students.

IMHO the government should write the syllabus for exams and a single independent body should write the exams. We do not need ‘competition’ between publisher-owned exam boards.

Publishers should then compete with each other, without insider knowledge, to create the best text books that teach the subject – and not how to pass ‘their’ exams.

This would drive down the cost of both exams and text books and end the current ‘almost corrupt‘ system

Personally I can’t wait to have nothing more to do with the system.

2 Responses to “GCSE and A level exams: parental reflections”

  1. Bernard Naylor Says:

    Michael: an interesting post as always. Herewith some alternative viewpoints.

    The best thing to do with GCSEs is to abolish them as the school-leaving age is being raised to eighteen. The education of our children, and the children themselves, suffer from too much external examination and assessment. (Schools should of course be conducting assessments internally as an ongoing duty – as no doubt they mostly are.) Other countries, with more successful education systems manage without this incessant micro-management from a government department.

    On no account should the government be setting syllabuses. It is a recipe for political interference with education. It may just about be OK in Physics, but in English Literature and History (for example), the recently departed Secretary of State has been having a pernicious effect, with (among other faults) too much harking back to what was OK when he was at school, donkeys years ago. There should be independent statutorily established bodies with responsibility to determine overall course content and educational objectives – and professional teachers should be trusted much more at the detailed level. The function of the inspectorate should be one of monitoring and mentoring, It’s just a short time since Ofsted decided that ‘Satisfactory’ actually meant – well – unsatisfactory! Every school has room for improvement. Giving any school a judgment that doesn’t imply that is simply wrong. We can all get better! And I entirely agree with you about the lunacy of having ‘competition’ in the examination system.

    Just a final point about universities’ calibration of examination marking, which of course I watched quite closely, from a detached standpoint, for about a quarter of a century. If anything above 70% is a first, and anything below 30% is a fail, that means that 60% of the calibration scale (i.e. above 70 and under 30) has no meaning. Calibration being one of your strong points, can you possibly justify that? I never heard a reasonable defence of it from any of my teacher colleagues!

  2. GCSEs, A levels, and degrees: Another Perspective | Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] Making sense of science « GCSE and A level exams: parental reflections […]

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