Examination Results Provide Yet More Embarrassment
By John Polley
THIS YEAR’S A Level and GCSE examination results provided plenty of food for thought.
For the first time in 21 years there was a reduction in the percentage of students receiving an A grade – down to 26.9 percent from 27 percent last year. If you go back to 1965, eight percent of candidates were awarded As. This figure remained more or less unchanged until 1985. Over the next 10 years, the percentage of As doubled, and the numbers have continued strongly upwards in the last 17 years.
To put this in some sort of historical perspective, about 30,000 students got first degrees in 1965. Today there are roughly ten times as many undergraduates in each of the three years of the degree course, a clear indication of the rate at which universities have expanded in the last 50 years.
There was a greater uptake of maths and sciences this year, an encouraging sign at a time when the traditional academic disciplines seemed to have been retreating. On the other hand, there has been a dramatic falling-away of applicants for French, Spanish and German.
Just over 12,000 teenagers took A level French and less than 5,000 studied German. Only Spanish has shown a slight increase in recent years – up to 7,351. You can look back to the Labour Government’s decision in 2004 to take compulsory foreign languages out of the National Curriculum as the beginning of the sharp decline.
There is a great deal of bigotry surrounding the learning of French and German. It mirrors a general anti-EU feeling and a high degree of xenophobia whipped up by the popular right-wing press but the decline in numbers is described as a “crisis” by Britain’s biggest examination board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, with “a risk of freefall like the Euro” according to its CEO Andrew Hall. The Coalition Government at least seems to be doing something positive, introducing language study as compulsory in Junior schools in an attempt to stir up early enthusiasm for the subjects.
Roughly 360,000 students have got places with a further 94,000 awaiting decisions, an overall fall of about eight percent compared with last year. The main reason for this has been the steep rise in fees and loans required to pay one’s way through higher education. Currently, it is estimated that a university course will cost £53,000 though repayment only begins when the graduate is earning at least £21,000 pa.
If the A level results produced August controversy, it was nothing compared with what happened a week later when 16-year-olds’ GCSE achievements were reported
A similar picture of lower passes emerged. There had clearly been a tightening up of standards as the percentages of candidates getting the A* and C grades showed a significant fall. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, agreed there were fewer students getting A and C grades, but a rise in the numbers of Bs and Ds. One might be excused for describing this as stating the bleeding obvious: if you are depressing standards then there will be more Bs than As and more Ds than Cs.
A drop in the exam pass rate has serious implications for a school. If the percentage of students getting five A*-C grades, including maths and English, falls below 40 percent, this can lead to the headteacher being sacked with the school itself being closed and forced to re-open as an academy. Thereafter it is answerable directly to the Secretary of State, not to its local education authority (LEA). The academy can subsequently be sponsored by commercial organisations and have to buy in their own services from private providers.
In all there are 3,261 state secondary schools. When the Coalition Government arrived, 205 opted to become academies. Two years on 1,641 have applied for this status and currently 1,283 are already open. Gove denies that ensuring poor results are a tactic intended to force schools to come out of LEA control but it is hard not to be suspicious of his motives. LEAs have always had responsibility for schools in their areas, having developed the expertise to run education services from supplying equipment and material right up to delivering educational training. The experience is all there yet this government believes that it is best to have it all privatised and commercially handled.
GCSE has been in existence now for 26 years, introduced by the Conservatives and their Education Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph. He was known as the Mad Monk but his work on the GCSE was a tremendous boon to teachers and pupils. It amalgamated GCE O levels and CSE, a teacher-run examination system which catered for secondary modern school pupils. Gove is no supporter of GCSE and has made it plain he would like to see it scrapped, replacing it with a new O level and restoring CSE for the less able.
It is not an idea that has found much favour, especially since CSE was regarded as a lightweight, unimportant examination. As one who taught it for 20 years, I can put my hand on my heart and assure you that it was a very good examination but it never achieved credibility. For that reason alone, it will never return.
What complicated matters this year was that new syllabuses were introduced for English and sciences. They were first taken last November, a procedure that allows clever kids to get a couple of exams out of the way before the main bulk is taken in the following June. Actually, this is a by-product of an anomalous system. Originally November examinations were for re-sits, enabling kids who failed in the summer to have another bash. In recent years, it has been used by school attempting to improve their pass rates.
Anyway, it was discovered these examinations, particularly in English, produced startlingly good results and there were worries that the credibility of the papers might suffer if these were repeated in June.
Thus, someone ordained that the pass mark be raised to make a C harder to get, reportedly from 44 percent to 53 percent. An English C is vital to enable students to progress to sixth form colleges and as many as 65,000 students now find themselves excluded from further education.
Little wonder then that the National Association of Head Teachers, teachers’ organisations and schools are livid with Michael Gove to the point where they have threatened to challenge the results in court. The Government is clearly worried so much so that their examination regulatory body, Ofqual, is conducting an urgent inquiry into what has gone wrong.
Bizarrely, Leighton Andrews, Education Minister in the devolved Welsh Government has ordered the Welsh Joint Examination Committee (WJEC) to re-mark its GCSE English to right perceived wrongs. The thing is that many English schools do the WJEC examination – and many Welsh schools take exams run by English boards. It is an impossible situation.
We now learn that Gove is intending to scrap all GCSEs by 2017. His problem is that the Lib Dems are against that idea and have stopped him from introducing the change before the next General Election in 2015. If Labour wins that, we shall be right back where we are today for they will definitely retain GCSE.