Examining the scandal

In politicising education, the UK government has brought the current grade-fixing row upon itself

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘Heads must roll!’ clamoured everybody from parents to headteachers to the UK secretary of state for education, following claims last week that exam boards had deliberately downgraded some students’ A-level marks to prevent massive ‘grade inflation’. The question is – whose heads?

This latest scandal centres on claims that the UK government exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), put pressure on exam boards to lower their marks. The bizarre story came to light after some candidates predicted top grades received marks as low as U (the lowest grade) for parts of their A-level assessment, and demanded that their papers be re-marked.

Independent schools, shocked by the lower-than-expected marks achieved by some of their pupils, led calls for an investigation – and from then, the allegations and revelations snowballed. The spotlight soon shifted from particular exam boards, to the QCA, to the government – with some arguing that grade fixing was a result of political pressure designed to avoid appearances that A-levels were getting too easy. Education secretary Estelle Morris has ordered an independent inquiry into the downgrading allegations. She strenuously denied claims of government interference – but few seem to believe her. If heads are going to roll, many are calling for Morris’ to be the first.

Whoever gets fingered by Morris’ inquiry, it is already clear that this is not an exam boards scandal, but a political crisis. It is a consequence of the politicisation of education under New Labour, which has persistently subsumed educational priorities and standards under a managerial approach emphasising quality control and audit. The obvious victims are last summer’s cohort of A-level candidates – the ultimate loser is the UK education system.

When New Labour first pronounced its notorious commitment to ‘education, education, education’, this was clearly about more than throwing cash at schools. It was a statement designed to put education at the heart of the government’s political programme; to make improvements in education the standard by which the Blair government was measured and judged.

In the narrow terms of New Labour politics, this focus made sense. This was a political party moulded in an ideological vacuum, self-consciously developing its policies around, not the ‘big’, polarising issues, but the everyday issues that personally affected the electorate. Children’s education, like health-care, was guaranteed to connect with the hopes and concerns that people held dear.

But in terms of the education system, this political focus has been a disaster. New Labour’s obsession with education did not come from a grand new vision of what education should be about, or how the system should be reformed. Its primary motivation was to convince the electorate of the government’s success, by getting more children doing better in education. How would it show this success? Through a far-reaching bureaucratic programme of assessment, audit, inspection and targeting.

One of the hallmarks of education policy over the past few years has been the relentless churn of the examinations system. There has been the addition of new exams: the National Curriculum Assessments that pupils take at ages 7, 11 and 14, and the AS levels that pupils take at 17. These tests are in addition to the GCSEs at 16 and A-levels at 18. Add to this the methods of continuous assessment used across the board, and schooling comes to look like one long treadmill of national assessment.

This process did not start with New Labour – which may account for the Tories’ inability to make more out of the current examinations crisis. But the Blair government was more than keen to pick up where the Conservative government left off, not only by adding assessments but by messing about with those that already existed. For example, the introduction of AS levels, which are equivalent to half an A-level, involved major changes to the assessment of the A-level as a whole – a factor that seems to be largely responsible for this current mess.

When AS levels made their first, hurried introduction into the education system, the confusion that they generated caused the government to talk about scrapping them. Now, no sooner has a problem arisen over the ensuing A-level grades than Estelle Morris is talking about possibly replacing A-levels with the International Baccalaureate. And there have been ongoing proposals to do something with the GCSE – although exactly what is unclear.

This continual messing about with the exam system indicates both the bureaucratic impulse behind New Labour’s education policy, and its political incoherence. The government preoccupies itself with assessment and targets because it is desperate to find some standard, some kind of objective measure, against which it can show the improvements made by its policy. But in adding more and more measures that have less and less to do with educational attainment, and in changing the basis of those standards that existed already – for example, the grading of A-levels – it erodes the foundation upon which any real measures can be set.

The figures become arbitrary, seemingly plucked out of the air to prove the success of the latest objective. And as the current A-level crisis indicates, such arbitrary measurements quickly show themselves to be worse than worthless – both for education, and for the government.

One big irony of the A-level scandal is that the apparent grade manipulation happened in order to keep grades down. It should be remembered that this summer’s A-level grades had risen, as they have done for several consecutive years: the pass rate for this year’s cohort jumped by 4.5 percentage points, to 94.3 percent (1). At the time, many complained that successive governments’ desire to show improvements in education had created a situation in which A-levels were too easy; at the time, the current government hit back by castigating critics for denigrating young people’s achievements.

The culture of our times, as propagated by the government, is that there is no such thing as too many high marks. All of it represents improvement; all of it is a reflection of young people’s genuine achievements. Given this, it seems that whatever happened between the QCA and the exam boards is unlikely to have sprung from a concern about grade inflation per se. It is more likely to represent a cack-handed attempt to maintain some kind of standard – born out of the recognition that, in order to have any sense of credibility, the rise in marks needed to show a gradual improvement rather than a seismic shift.

To put it bluntly – once it became clear that the AS/A-level system was not simply a reform of the traditional gold standard, but a brand new recipe for more top marks, showing improvement upon previous years would be impossible. It would be clear that this was a politically motivated, badly implemented system of ensuring that everybody appeared to be a winner – because the government wanted it to be so.

So is it a conspiracy? If only things were so straightforward. Estelle Morris has strenuously denied accusations that government ministers had ordered the downgrading of the exam results; and indeed, in these back-stabbing, letter-leaking times, it seems unlikely that any government minister would have dared to be so crass – or, if so, that it would have taken so long to come to light. The real question is why any minister would need to issue such an order.

The culture surrounding education has become so attuned to meeting government objectives that nobody needs to tell a civil servant that this should be his first priority. That’s just what happens. And while the consequences are disastrous for the pupils on the receiving end, they are ultimately far worse for the education system, and the government.

The upshot of this latest exams scandal is a nation of traumatised teenagers, wandering around with A-level certificates not worth the paper they are printed on. Of course they should expect sympathy, even outrage on their behalf – but equally, they should be encouraged to get over it. Teachers, parents and government ministers might genuinely believe that exam grades are the only thing in young people’s lives; young people tend to be much more realistic and resourceful about such things, and nothing can be gained from encouraging them to see their futures as ruined because of this godalmighty cock-up.

The education system, meanwhile, has been exposed as a gigantic piece of government propaganda. Rather than educating young people, and assessing its pupils and itself according to educational goals, it is forced to rush around like a headless chicken, meeting arbitrary government targets. None of this is a revelation – and all-too-familiar tales of demoralised teaching staff, disorientated headteachers, and qualified-but-ignorant pupils indicate that many within the education system are aware of the problem, and unhappy about it. Maybe now the education sector can stop pretending that playing the game is somehow good for education, and start re-asserting its core function.

As for the government…. A strategy of politicising education in an attempt to connect with the concerns that people hold most dear has the flipside that, when things go wrong, people’s distrust of, and detachment from politics increases a thousand-fold. Having manipulated education for its own cynical objectives, New Labour now has to live with the corrosive public response that its strategy has created.

No number of independent inquiries, International Baccalaureates or education secretaries’ heads will remedy the situation – although no doubt all of these things will be tried. Because the one thing that bureaucrats can’t do is leave well enough alone.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) ‘Exam chief denies political fix’, BBC News, 17 September 2002

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