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GCSE results controversy

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Blog - GCSE results controversy

Thursday 23 August 2012

Congratulations to all students receiving their GCSE results both at Bennett and elsewhere this morning. There are some superb results out there for which young people have worked very hard.

There is also something of a media storm this morning over the fall back in the proportion of high grades, and particularly in in English GCSE. I listened to a bit of Chris Woodhead on Radio 5 Live this morning, in which he expressed the view that this was a good thing because it prevented GCSE grade inflation. None of us who work in education wants to handle a debased form of GCSE where the examinations literally get easier each year and cease to have the value that we believed they have, any more than any of us wants to have our currency or savings in the bank debased or devalued. However, it does seem to me that it is a very pessimistic view of human progress that refuses to recognise that improvements in teaching and tracking, and understanding of how the human brain learns can never lead to better outcomes.

In medicine, we happily accept that doctors now know more about the human body than they did 50 years ago, and that they have better developed skills for treating us, leading to higher survival rates. I hear no-one asking for a higher death rate because survival of an illness is becoming too easy! Why do we find it so hard to accept that better understanding to teaching and learning can lead to better outcomes?
One could make the same analogy with sport. This link http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/08/01/sports/olympics/racing-against-history.html
shows how sporting achievements have risen in the past century. When you have watched it, you might wonder why someone doesn’t suggest making 100 metres longer to make the swim more difficult! But we accept better performance in sport as a result of better training and coaching methods.

A particular aspect of this morning’s furore is apparently depressed results in English GCSE. There is, whatever the government or anyone else says, clearly an issue here. I have spoken with many heads up and down the country over the past 24 hours, and all have agreed that English results show a marked fall in comparison with other subjects. We can certainly discern that with our own results, though not, fortunately, in as marked a way as many other schools.

Nonetheless, in an education system where so much is measured year on year on examination data, arbitrarily moving grade boundaries in one subject and throwing that subject out of kilter with others debases the value of examinations in a far more damaging way than incremental improvements in outcomes over a period of time ever do. The way to manage the problem, in so far as it is even a problem, is to have a transparent review of all subjects, and ensure that the relationship between results in different subjects is maintained, and ensure that we understand how one year’s results will be comparable with previous years’, while ensuring also that an appropriate element of challenge is maintained.

This will need investigation, and it is by no means clear what has happened exactly. The figures published by the Joint Qualifications Council this morning seem to show in English only a slight fall in each of the higher grades – less than 1% in A*-C. But most schools I have spoken to are talking about a dip which is much larger than that. Part of the explanation might be that the ‘tinkering’ with the grade boundaries seems to have happened between January and June, and many schools enter students in January for English. Perhaps they got much higher results, and the boundaries were then adjusted for June so that the total results published in the summer for the year as a whole were marginally down on last year, but to achieve this and balance out the high January results the June candidates had to take a very big hit. Who knows. This will need to be looked into.