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Fans, Shit and GCSE English

August 23, 2012

If you wanted to abolish GCSE examinations or to move towards a system where GCSE syllabuses were set nationally you would probably be smiling today. As a result of some heavy steers, some clumsy strategic changes in direction and the inability of statisticians to understand the consequences of where they are headed there have been some radical grade changes in this week’s outcomes for GCSE English. Specifically, a tranche of results which would previously have earned a grade C are now getting a grade D.

This doesn’t seem to be across the piste but anyone relying on AQA English Language for their critical English grading is likely to be in trouble with 70% of the candidates not making a C grade. Elsewhere, people are complaining about OCR so it is likely to be a national problem. The flagship academies run by ARK have all seen their English results decline so no favouritism there!

Of course, the idea was that the stories in 2012 would all be about how grade creep had been abolished by the timely intervention of the regulator OFQUAL and gentle tightening of the screws by the examination boards in response. To be fair, the overall figures, with a drop of less than half of one percent in the overall A-C rate, would suggest this strategy was working but it has clearly been achieved at the cost of some greater drops in English and, possibly, some bigger year-on-year changes in specific syllabuses.

Apart from the concern that what are supposed to be objective criteria and standards preserved and safeguarded by the examination boards can be tweaked by them to suit the political climate these results are going to have some unexpected consequences.

First of all, if your school’s specification is one of those which is taking the biggest hit the trouble isn’t limited to the English faculty or department. A reduction in grades for English leads to a reduction in the key measure of A-C grades. This is almost the only measure of school improvement which OFSTED has any respect for, so we are now faced with the apparent fact that a large number of schools which were improving last term are going down the pan this autumn.

Having results which are, technically, on the slide and worse than last year’s is going to affect your value added calculation as well and, in the medium term, your OFSTED grading which, in turn, could trigger more inspections.

It puts a lot of other things at risk as well. The current government strategy for school improvement is based on hubs of excellence known as Teaching School Alliances. These are at risk if the schools at the centre are not seem to be improving. The headteachers of these schools are commonly designated as National Leaders of Education and are at the centre of the school-to-school support initiatives pioneered by the coalition. The schools are often known as National Support Schools precisely because they provide support to schools which are in trouble with their results. Their credibility to do this is likely to be shot to pieces if they are seen to be getting worse in terms of outcomes.

It is also bad news for the new academies which like to see – and can often identify – a post-launch bonus in their results. Persuading parents and governors to go down this road, leaving the local authority and stepping out on your own is a big decision. A lot of perfectly competent headteachers running efficient and effective schools will not be sleeping comfortably in their beds tonight. It is worth noting that these are not the comfortable, coasting schools which critics like to go on about but they are the ones which have been hauling themselves up progressively by their bootstraps over a number of years and now find themselves swinging by the rope.

Fundamentally, our education system is predicated on the maintenance of standards coupled with a slow overall improvement – something which the massive investment in education is quite entitled to expect as a return.

Tinker around with the grades and the systems which measure that improvement in order to satisfy elderly critics who have very little idea of what schools do (the parents of school-age children very rarely consider GCSE examinations to be too easy) and you risk the entire support strategy and school improvement strategy which you have invested in for several years.

Mess around with standards to respond to political pressure and things get even worse. You prejudice the assessment system and lose public respect as well as failing to meet the expectations of society.

You’re only left feeling smug about all this if you would like to see a big shake-up in the examination system, fewer examination boards, national syllabuses, and more schools forced into joining chains and becoming academies. Who could possibly want that to happen?

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