Thursday, August 23, 2007

Congratulations and Concerns

GCSE Results
Another bumper crop of A's and A*
according to the Ministry
First of all, congratulations to anyone who has got the GCSE results they were hoping for today, or perhaps more likely to the parents of any such student. I'm convinced that as a species we are getting brighter and that other than a few problems sectors pupils today are working harder than they ever have done, aware of the tough competition out there in the real world.

I mean it but, even if I didn't, it's something you have to say anyway, lest you be accused of disrespecting the efforts of those sitting the exams. It's the 20-somethingth year of rising numbers of A and A* grades, and also the 20-somethingth year in which the same tired old line has been trotted out to attack anyone who has the temerity to ask whether the exams are as challenging as they used to be.

Yet these questions have to be asked. Just like a currency, the strength of an examination system is underpinned by the general confidence in its integrity.

There are clear concerns which do need to be addressed, otherwise, regardless of the merits of the case, the system will become tainted. Simply using moral blackmail to try to close down the debate does everyone a disservice.

Of the concerns raised there are three that I feel deserving of fuller consideration than a Minister and a representative of the examination boards simply saying 'there is no problem'; neither have the objective neutrality for their assurances to carry much weight.

Firstly there are the simple numbers. If the persistent growth in top level grades year on year is indeed entirely down to improvements in the educational system, educators the world over would be beating a path to our door to emulate our success. As it happens they do come, but they tend to opt for the old style O-level examinations which are still offered outside the UK.

The consistent inflation in success on all measures would be enough to make any scientist suspicious, especially in the absence of causative factors to explain them; a massive school building programme is unlikely to explain a growth in success before the plans have reached the drawing boards, but this won't stop a government claiming success. It all seems a little bit too much like someone points being plotted on a graph where the line showing the desired results has already been drawn.

Secondly there is the testimony of those who next encounter the successful examinees, and have done so over a longer period than any government hold power; the employers or in the case of A levels, the universities. The opinion of neither of these key stakeholders accords with the opinion the government.

Finally there is operation of the marked. Even as a committed free-marketer I can see problems in a system where any head of department who wished success for his school and his pupils would inevitably seek to opt for an examination from a board where his pupils are most likely to achieve success, and where, I suspect, the financial success of the examination boards must in some way be tied to the number of pupils sitting its exams.

There is of course a degree of regulation to prevent the worst excesses such a dysfunctional market could produce, but what I see is a regulatory function that sits far too close to the government, which has its own interest in seeing ever growing pass rates. What I don't see is hard research - when was the last time today's pupils were asked to sit, for example, the 1995 JMB Maths O level paper I sat, as a research exercise so that results across generations could be properly normalised, and who knows…perhaps the annual accusations could be put to bed once and for all.

I don't know if there is a problem. Unfortunately because of the way successive governments have handled the issue I certainly don't know that there isn't, and such a situation breeds a distrust which is unfair to kids who have probably worked as hard as I did, and probably more so.

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