Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results

It does seem quite extraordinary that this year’s outstanding GCSE results were greeted as being symptomatic of exams that are too easy and which need to be reformed.

Kevin Courtney is the Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the largest teachers union

It does seem quite extraordinary that this year’s outstanding GCSE results (see graph 1) were greeted not as a result of hard work by both teachers and pupils but as being symptomatic of exams that are too easy and which need to be reformed. Especially when many of those same commentators are very happy to lambast schools at the bottom of the school league tables creating huge pressures to teach to the test.

Graph 1:


The NUT is not opposed to reviewing our qualifications system, especially with an expectation that most young people in future will remain in education or training to the age of 18. Rather than introducing ill considered, ad hoc and piecemeal changes seemingly at the whim of individual ministers and their personal prejudices about learning and achievement we need a considered and planned review.

This should be agreed with education professionals, universities, employers and the wider public. The government intends to discontinue modular examinations and return to a system where exams must be sat at the same time at the end of a two-year course.

Modular courses and qualifications, provided they are well designed, help ensure all young people are able to demonstrate their full knowledge and abilities. Spelling and grammar are clearly important, and qualifications in English should assess and accredit abilities in those areas.

Examinations in other subjects should assess abilities in those subjects specifically, rather than attempting also to assess ability in English. This is particularly important for young people who have English as an additional language or those who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

While the governmnet expends much energy on attempts to raise standards, while completely ignoring the undoubted present success rate, they are remarkably silent on one of the main barriers to many young people continuing in education. For many students the issue of being financially solvent enough to continue studying is a huge problem.

The reduction and confusion surrounding the education maintenance allowance will cast a shadow over these results as many students will find it difficult to continue in education despite having the grades and potential to do so.

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19 Responses to “Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results”

  1. Trakgalvis

    RT @leftfootfwd: Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: http://t.co/FRdpDKA writes @NUTonline's Kevin Courtney #NewsClub

  2. Political Planet

    Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: It does seem quite extraordinary that this year’s outst… http://t.co/jzBz8at

  3. Shamik Das

    Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: http://t.co/8a42sQD writes @NUTonline's Kevin Courtney

  4. Martin Morgan

    Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: http://t.co/8a42sQD writes @NUTonline's Kevin Courtney

  5. Trakgalvis

    RT @leftfootfwd: Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: http://t.co/FRdpDKA writes @NUTonline's Kevin Courtney #NewsClub

  6. Penny Louch

    Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: http://t.co/8a42sQD writes @NUTonline's Kevin Courtney

  7. JulieDavies

    RT @leftfootfwd: Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results: http://t.co/FRdpDKA writes @NUTonline's Kevin Courtney #NewsClub

  8. Julie Davies

    There’s been a bit of coverage today about the way state schools are narrowing the gap with private schools and Alastair Campbell has speculated on Twitter that there isn’t more coverage because most new editors have their kids educated privately: http://ht.ly/6coN8

    Perhaps there are some simple explanations. GCSEs have been around for twenty five years and results have been steadily improving. Teachers have a really good knowledge of course requirements and so do the kids themselves; they get hold of the syllabus, they know what to do and how to work. They have access to sources and resources online without walking to the public library and Google means they can look things up without showing themselves up in class by asking a silly question.

    Falling behind, getting lost and confused, making the wrong choice of subject and dropping out are all much less common because of all of the above and better teaching methods. When I first came into teaching, the route to good grades was through a secret garden. The private schools and the private tutors had a map and so did specialist and sought-after teachers in state schools but it wasn’t nearly as universal available as it is now.

    The moaners want kids to spend two years studying a course and then failing, to prove we have a world class education. Actually, what they hate most is kids from humble backgrounds to get good results without going to a grammar school. The right sees this as the only ladder. They want to see the other ladders taken away. EMA never stood a chance after the coalition was formed.

  9. Ed's Talking Balls

    I agree, it always seems churlish for commentators to start banging on about grade inflation on the day that results come out. I guess it’s inevitable, but harsh on those who have no choice but to sit, and try to pass, the exams in front of them.

    Nonetheless, we should all be concerned about grade inflation. I don’t know too much about GCSEs, other than anecdotal stuff, but I saw the BBC’s graph on A-Level results the other week. There is simply no way that, at some point in the 80s or 90s, 17-18 year olds suddenly became dramatically more intelligent.

    As for modular courses, the idea is sound in principle (albeit that one set of exams, rather than several spread over time, test a candidate’s ability to deal with pressure better) . The problem is resitting, as too many bites at the cherry devalue the qualifications. Why should someone who passes at the first time of asking be awarded the same qualification as someone who needed several cracks at it?

    Lastly, I noted with interest the improved performance of City Academies (as highlighted by The Spectator). When will the unions stop letting self-interest get in the way of higher standards for children? No society should tolerate sink schools as “one of those things”.

  10. Julie Davies

    On your last point, Ed. (Is your surname ‘Talking Balls’ or ‘Stalking Balls’ by the way?)

    City academies, Labour academies, were set up in schools with serious problems. For many of these schools, it was a last chance to improve to avoid closure and a lot more money was pushed their way than other schools in their local authorities. They weren’t the only schools and they weren’t always the bottom of the heap. For too many schools in 1999 when academies were invented, a steep rise in results was the only way to go and the success story is the huge numbers of state schools, not just academies, that have equalled or exceeded the results trumpeted in today’s Spectator. Unions have members in all sorts of schools, including academies (and in fact public and other private schools.) Your point about self interest is just flatulent.

  11. 13eastie

    For twenty-three years on the trot, GCSE “pass” rates have “improved”.

    If this were simply down to chance, it could be expected to happen every 8 million years or so, which means that this year’s candidates are about ALL as lucky as lottery jackpot winners.

    The only possible alternative explanation is that teachers en masse have successfully bet their reputations on heads rather than tails coming up twenty-three times in a row.

    Certainly we should not credit the notions that:

    a) successive governments have encouraged grade devaluation
    b) “Mickey Mouse” GCSE’s in media studies, citizenship, food technology, social science demand any less of students than the languages and sciences that have been spurned in their place
    c) exam boards compete for business on the basis of prospective result and league-table gains

    To countenance any of these would be “unfair on the kids”: instead we should just carry on letting the government and the TUC tell them the lies that their prospective employers will never believe.

  12. Mr. Sensible

    I agree, Mr Courtney. I get so bored with the anual debate about whether the exams are getting easier or not. I think such a debate is a serious insult to our young peoples’ achievements, and if that goes on it is no wonder they become disenchanted.

    On the point of the Coalition’s reforms, I agree with you on the scrapping of modular assessment, and surely such an assessment method as is being proposed is counterproductive in terms of employers; they want employees who are able to deliver good performence over a sustained period, rather than in just 1 2-hour block.

    Further to that, was not the decision to introduce the English Bacoloriat in 2010 a big mistake? I think giving certain “traditional” subjects more status over others is wrong and won’t help to ‘rebalance the economy’ anyway; you need core subjects like English and Maths, but I think that should be that. But if they insist on doing it, wouldn’t it be a better idea to have waited until 2013 or 2014, to allow students to take it in to account when choosing their options? Accordingly, shouldn’t the figures for last year, this year and next be taken with a pinch of sault, rather than penalizing these students for not taking subjects they didn’t know were going to be given more weight?

    Another ill-judged policy, by an education department that is becoming somewhat expert with them.

  13. Ed's Talking Balls

    The English Baccalaureate is a good idea. Schools shouldn’t feed students lies that all subjects are equal. Any employer would tell you that they’re not.

    As for ‘ill-judged policy’, I’m glad that Gove is endorsing one of Labour’s few good policies (Academies) and has, albeit only very tentatively, given his support to free schools. The unions’ jealous guarding of the status quo, i.e. mediocrity, must be challenged.

  14. Mr. Sensible

    Ed I don’t agree with that, I’m afraid.

    Firstly on the EBAC, you could make a case for any subject; yes languages are important, but equally one could argue that subjects such as Design and Technology are important if we’re to rebalance the economy. The Coalition talks a good game with that, but the fact is that the rhetoric from Vince Cable is not being matched by the actions of Michael Gove. I suggest you give today’s Guardian editorial a read; it points out that even the Tory-controled Education Select Committee recognizes some of this.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/25/gcse-ebac-drawbacks

    And on your point about academies, you are correct to say that the system was started by the previous Labour government. In my view, Tony Blair’s system was introduced with good intentions, though I am unsure as to whether this was the best way to do it; I think a better idea would have been to allow schools that are performing well within a local authority area to work with those that are not; I think Ed Balls talked about federations towards the end of the last government. However, the Coalition has turned the aim of the previous system completely on its head by inviting every head and their dog to turn their school in to an academy, which I think is a big mistake.

    My biggest objection to academies and ‘Free Schools’ is that it exposes another Coalition contradiction; they talk a good game with regard to democratic accountability, and yet they want to see the role for local democratically elected authorities in our education system to be almost non-existant. That is contrary to both accountability and localism. Also, Gove has failed to address how local authorities would deal with the shortfalls in their budgets for things such as SEN within maintained schools. I am opposed to the marketization of our education system.

    I think you have a point Julie, and to add to that, I think it important that we selebrate our young peoples’ achievements given that they were making headlines last week for the wrong reasons. The commentators stayed quiet with the A Levels, but staying quiet for the GCSEs as well seems to have been too much for us to hope for.

  15. Leon Wolfson

    @6 – So provide students with information about what’s valuable. Rather than pushing something which will turn off, badly, the non-academic who could excel in more career-orientated subjects off education entirely.

    And of course we can’t have people studying new media or other high-tech subjects which might be important for the economy and let the poor earn a deacent wage, no.

    And of course you engage in a round of union bashing for good measure. At this stage, I’m quite happy calling for closed shops again…

    Moreover, “There is simply no way that, at some point in the 80s or 90s, 17-18 year olds suddenly became dramatically more intelligent.”

    Oh yea? so, you have never heard of the Flynn Effect then. Because it’s very real, and makes a mockery of your argument.

  16. Ed's Talking Balls

    IQ will broadly increase over time due to various factors, such as improved diet, improvements in technology, etc. It’s a gradual progression. It is inconceivable that a graph charting educational achievement could be flat across the 50s, 60s, 70s and mid-80s and then rise exponentially. I’m not aware of any theory that could explain such a sharp, comsistent rise (unless government started putting something in the water then?)

    What you mention in no way makes a mockery of my argument. You say many facile things, but that perhaps takes the biscuit.

  17. AdamPa

    Leon Wolfson,

    Extrapolation of the Flynn Effect backwards suggests that Victorians and those living in the early 20th Century were virtually subhuman.

    A more sensible explanation is that although IQ tests do correlate with what most consider intelligence it is not an exact correlation – not surprising as there is no definitive all encompassing definition of intelligence

  18. Leon Wolfson

    AdamPa – That’s plain and simple revisionism. No need to comment further…

    Ed’s Talking Balls – For someone who didn’t know about the effect, do read more than the wikipedia article. Hint: Exams marking has changed. You’ve just managed to show that you don’t understand the topic. Please keep mocking yourself…

  19. Ed's Talking Balls

    Pretty simple really: no credible person would believe that, absent something truly extraordinary happening, 17-18 year olds became dramatically cleverer in such a short space of time (and that they did so, every single year).

    Exam marking’s changed? Why should I be surprised by that? That’s part of the point I’m making. It’s clearly become more lenient.

    Incidentally, none of what I said came from Wikipedia. Broad trends in IQ should be easy to anticipate, whatever name is given to the theory/effect. What I said was common sense; what you appear to be arguing, i.e. that some time in the 80s everyone became really clever and kept getting cleverer year after year, beggars belief. No need for me to mock further.

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