GCSE wars: the case for real and hard exams

However exam grades are manipulated, the result is always to sacrifice children’s education at the altar of political expediency.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Over the past few years, the publication in Britain of A-level and GCSE examination results has become an annual sport, with government supporters proclaiming that their wonderful policies have been responsible for yet another rise in educational standards. For some time now, British society has become accustomed to a steady increase in the number of students getting A and A* grades, and to the idea that, at least on paper, Britain is going through a protracted period of educational miracles.

Those who expressed scepticism about this alleged educational miracle – particularly during the New Labour era – were typically denounced as mean-spirited, reactionary buffoons, callously disregarding the hard work of students and of exceptionally able teachers. As a result, even those experts who were aware that the school-exams system had lost its way, and had come to be dominated by the goal of constant grade-inflation, refrained from stating their views too explicitly lest they be accused of cultural malevolence.

Now, all of a sudden, it seems that grade inflation has come to a halt, temporarily at least. According to the latest exam results, the number of GCSE candidates achieving five A* to C grade passes dropped by 0.4 percentage points, to 69.4 per cent. This is the first time the figure has fallen since the GCSE exam was first sat in 1988. The proportion of candidates obtaining A* or A grade passes also fell, from 23.2 per cent to 22.4 per cent. Not surprisingly, the educational establishment has responded angrily to this development, to what appears to be a manipulation of grade results downwards.

Chris Edwards, assistant head of Bishop David Brown School in Surrey, said in an open letter to the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove: ‘[My pupils] can’t understand why someone would want to play around with their futures in such a cruel way.’ ‘You have not simply moved the goalposts’, Edwards continued. ‘You have demolished them, sold off the playing fields and left the dreams of these youngsters in tatters.’ It is far from clear why the dreams of children should be destroyed by a more realistic reflection of their achievements. Universities and employers are quite capable of doing the maths – they will understand that an A received in August 2012 is likely to be worth a little more than an A handed out in August 2011.

Echoing Edwards, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told Gove that ‘it is morally wrong to manipulate exam grades in this way – you are playing with young people’s futures’. Lightman is probably right to say that exam grades were manipulated this year. However, since the GCSE exam was introduced, results have always been subject to political manipulation. Today’s critics of the manipulation of the exam system are highly selective about what kind of interventions they find objectionable.

Educational exams are invariably influenced by political calculations. One of the first examples of this trend was the Chinese imperial exam system. This system was about selecting the most able individuals for a position in the administrative bureaucracy of the Chinese state. The system was also used to alter the prevailing structures of power by widening opportunities for entry into the bureaucracy. In China, as elsewhere, the examination system was used to consolidate a sense of national and cultural unity and to assist a particular political and policy objective.

So in one sense, the politicisation of the English school-examination system is hardly a novel historical phenomenon. However, there is one important feature of the politicisation of exams in Britain over the past two or three decades that marks it out from other instances of this phenomenon. When modern British educators criticise the bad old days of so-called elitist exams, and praise the more ‘inclusive’ and ‘democratic’ exam system of recent years, what they are really expressing is a singular, one-sided politicised attitude towards education. To put it bluntly: what matters to them is that children feel valued and included rather than that they actually learn something. From this standpoint, exams are less about testing ability and knowledge than they are about validation and recognition. That is one reason why school exams have been systematically robbed of intellectual and academic content in Britain in recent years.

Unlike previous generations of educators, who, for all their sins, for all their politicisation of the exam system, still believed in the value of exams, contemporary curriculum engineers are highly ambivalent about exams. Why? For the simple reason that an examination system is self-consciously all about discriminating between the candidates; in particular, it discriminates between high achievement, mediocrity and failure, and that is offensive to today’s promoters of the ideal of ‘inclusion’. In other words, a real examination system, one that is more than just an instrument of social engineering, is unlikely to meet the criteria of the politics of inclusion and validation.

Although modern-day pedagogy is comfortable with grade inflation, it is hostile to any system of competitive examination. That is why there is so much criticism directed at exams these days. Educators frequently complain that exam results do not reflect the genuine abilities of every child. Some argue that children learn differently – that there are ‘different learners’ – and that a one-size-fits-all exam system is therefore unfair. Instead of real exams, many educators opt for the dumbed-down culture of ‘assessment’. It is frequently claimed that assessments – based on projects, teacher’s evaluations, etc – provide a more genuine reflection of the child and his or her abilities.

The emphasis on difference has encouraged the idea that different children should be examined by different criteria. Consequently, some children are given more time than others to finish exams, or receive a dispensation to use computers rather than rely on handwriting. And with so much at stake in exams, is it any surprise that the demand for such dispensations has been rising?

There is little doubt that there are some creative kinds of assessment that provide important insights into the abilities of various kinds of children. Such insights are often invaluable in working out a realistic strategy for motivating children and helping them overcome the challenges they face. But clever instruments of assessment are not a substitute for a proper system of examination. Whether we like it or not, an exam system is not about ‘the child’. It is about evaluating the experience, knowledge and ability of an entire cohort of young people. Society needs to understand what children know and where they stand in relation to one another.

It is, of course, important not to fetishise any system of examination. The issue at stake is always the content of education. Cultivating a more intellectually oriented, subject-based and experimental environment in the classroom is the key challenge facing English education today. The cultivation of such an environment will take a very long time and will require the enthusiastic commitment of teachers who take scholarship seriously. It is unlikely that tackling the problems facing education will produce higher educational achievements in the short term. That is why claims that this or that policy has led to a sudden increase in school performance are invariably based on fantasy rather than real experience. As far as the examination system is concerned, we need to worry far less about percentage increases or decreases in grades, and far more about the intellectual integrity of children’s education and the exams it gives rise to.

Frank Furedi is author of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

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Topics Politics


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