SINCE 1997 GCSE results in England have improved by 63% as measured by the numbers of pupils getting at least five decent grades including English and Maths.
Grade inflation? For sure, says a growing clamour of opinion ranging from parents to traditionalists and politicians. The government has now acted decisively, scrapping the exam altogether. It will be replaced from 2017 by a more rigorous, non-modular English Baccalaureate.
The crunch came this summer after the exam results worsened for the first time in GCSE history. The exams regulator, Ofqual, had intervened to insist on more rigorous marking, and many pupils had not achieved the grades they thought they deserved. Cue uproar, with teachers’ unions in particular crying foul.
The issue of exams is just one controversy that racks the English education system. Another major row concerns the governance of schools, with New Labour and now the Coalition wresting state comprehensives from the control of local authorities and granting them independence as ‘Academies’. Michael Gove, the education secretary has gone one further, allowing parents to set up their own ‘Free Schools’ with government money.
The theory behind these moves is simple. Grant schools greater independence and direct accountability to parents and they will respond by innovating and improving quality. The government has backed theory with forceful intervention. Failing comprehensives have effectively been taken over and in some cases forcibly converted into academies.
Education reform in England is nothing short of revolutionary. And this begs a question about the grade inflation controversy. To what extent is the improvement in grades south of the border down to easier exams, and to what improved schooling?
Gove himself has hailed the current crop of teachers as the finest ever. And in building on the reforms of New Labour (which in turn built upon those of John Major), the government also clearly believes that education policy has been going in the right direction for many years now. Add to this the fact that education spending has risen by 50% in the last decade, and it would be very odd indeed if exam results had not improved.
Nonetheless, the prevailing impression of grade inflation, underpinned by a number of academic studies, has also been accepted by ministers. So there’s something of a contradiction here. If the improvement is all down to grade inflation, does that mean that the reforms have had no effect? Certainly it implies a colossal fall in productivity, with all those extra billions being wasted.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two – schools in England have improved somewhat (academy status certainly seems to raise performance), but there has also been an erosion of standards. However, the government has work to do to square the circle. It needs to come up with a reliable method of testing the efficacy of its reforms.
In contrast to these convulsions, in Scotland public discussion on education is marked by a numbing silence. Among parents, concern about state schools mirrors that down South (most would go independent if they could afford it) and chatter about falling standards is rife.
Yet with the honourable exception of the Conservative Party, the political consensus remains unmoved. The only controversy surrounds the pay and conditions of teachers, both of which have become markedly more favourable under devolution.
Indeed, the productivity problem is at least as serious as in the rest of the UK. Spending on schools has risen by half, with no discernable impact on results. What on earth has happened to all that money, as MSP’s conspicuously fail to ask? Whether you look at exams, or the OECD’s PISA results, or other international studies now suppressed by the Scottish Government, the story is the same – Scottish pupils have failed to improve over the last decade and more.
Scottish politicians and educationalists complacently assume that the relative improvement in English exams is all down to grade inflation. A recent report by the think tank Reform Scotland pointed to two English studies on falling standards – but admitted that no such research had taken place in Scotland.
In other words, grade inflation could be better, worse or about the same here. We just don’t know.
It is usually assumed that grade inflation in England results from competing exam boards offering ever easier exams to schools to win their custom. This may be true, but it is a little odd because competition also works in the opposite direction. Some schools, for example, have abandoned GCSE’s and adopted more rigorous exams such as the Cambridge Pre-U or the international baccalaureate that are regarded more highly by the ultimate customers of exams – employers and universities. You would expect other schools to opt for tougher forms of GSCE so that their pupils are better prepared for A-levels and higher education.
And if grade inflation is indeed worse in England than Scotland, you would also expect Scottish exam grades to benefit from rising credibility with employers, universities and even English independent schools and academies. Yet there is no evidence for this. No English schools have adopted the Scottish curriculum, as far as I am aware, while several Scottish schools have opted for GCSE’s.
Particularly revealing has been the Welsh response to this summer’s GCSE re-grading row. The Welsh education minister has insisted that affected pupils have their exams re-marked on the old basis, in other words inflating their achievements. This intervention smacks of political gaming in to differentiate Wales from the evil Tories in England. The side effect is unquestioning support of the producer interest (teachers and their unions) and neglect of rigour, high standards and the long term interests of pupils themselves. In other words there is a political bias towards grade inflation, irrespective of the structure of exam boards.
The near complete absence of debate and critical thinking about Scottish school education means there is little concrete evidence as to the real relative performance of Scottish schools. But that tells a tale in itself. A tale of complacency, navel-gazing and slavery to the political and vested interests of the education producer. And a rejection of new ideas, reform and the interests of those who really matter – our children.