On GCSE reform
Hilary Cremin June 2013
So – GCSE’s are to be reformed, with new grades from 1-8 to combat grade inflation. There is no doubt that more young people now are passing exams and getting top grades. A’s and B’s are certainly attainable by almost any student who is prepared to engage with off-the-shelf revision aids, re-do coursework in the light of teacher feed-back or re-sit exams. They are also attainable by those students who have parents who ‘actively engage’ with their coursework, or who pay someone else to do so. Even in the schools where other people’s parental choice has resulted in an over-representation of large numbers of children facing social and financial challenges, students are, quite rightly, no longer allowed to fail. The pay of their teachers and the survival of their headteacher depend on a good number of them crossing the D-C threshold. No one is blaming teachers of cheating (although one person’s cheating is another person’s elite schooling system) but when assessment is reduced to multiple bite-sized tasks that can be completed following highly structured support, and repeated again and again to improve the grade, it is hard to see how any child who is prepared to play the game can fail. Some, of course, are not willing or able to play the game, and re-sits cost more than is affordable on the minimum wage.
The problem is the conflation of success (money) and education. Education is now a commodity to be consumed like any other. It is no longer a normal and transformative process of human development. My son and his friends engaged like anyone else in a system of barter and exchange over coursework and grades. “This piece of course-work is worth a B. My teacher tells me that if I do this and that I could get an A. I don’t need an A in this subject, so I will re-do the coursework in another subject instead”. Tips, strategies, well-worked examples and websites are all exchanged in an entrepreneurial system that rewards those who engage with it. Grades mean cash, and certificates can be hoarded and exchanged later for that rare commodity – a graduate job that might stand a chance of repaying the student loan as well as providing for a pension.
The marketization of education has extended to exam boards. If your school will lose profit or be closed down if you don’t get good grades for your students, are you going to use an exam board that allows easy re-takes and gives out a lot of information about the test, or are you going to use an exam board that prides itself on testing un-schooled knowledge and skills? If you are an exam board, how will you best ensure your business interests in a competitive environment? Every year when the GCSE and A level grades are published, howls of protest accompany so-called grade inflation and the recognition that it is no longer as easy to pay for your child to excel over other people’s children. Teaching to the test, it seems, is no longer the preserve of a few elite private schools.
According to the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment report into Research evidence relating to proposals for reform of the GCSE (2013, http://oucea.education.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/WCQ-report-final.pdf) in 1986, 27% of 16 year olds achieved 5 o-level or CSE passes at grade C or above and in 2011, 81% of 16 year olds achieved at least 5 A*-C GCSEs. How then to push your child to the top in the current climate? Gap year? Teaching English to the poor oversees? Only if you can afford for them to be non-economic for an extended period of time. Ironically, some university admissions tutors are falling back on these kinds of CV’d experiences (proxy indicators of wealth) to distinguish amongst so many A* candidates. Poverty itself has become part of a commodity to be ‘addressed’ and consumed as a step on the ladder to success of those whose lifestyles maintain it.
When I was doing my A levels in the early 1980s, many of my classmates were not expected to pass their exams. Teachers were there to teach, whether pupils learnt or not was up to them and their parents. Only about 10% of us in the sixth form got the grades to go to university (my parents were teachers – I was never going to fail). I remember my friend’s mother saying that she knew that her son would not pass any exams, but she wanted him to stay at school for another couple of years to ‘grow up a bit’. At 16, she felt that he was not ready yet to enter the workplace. I am not saying that a system that allows the majority of young people to fail is the right one, but back then teachers thought of themselves as preparing the best students to be picked out by the exam system. They believed that this was their professional duty. Success was not a commodity to be consumed, a right of any tax-paying parent. They believed in the myth of meritocracy.
Since the early 1980’s successive governments have promised the electorate that they will reduce income inequality and promote social inclusion through raising standards of achievement in education. In the same time period there has been a 50% increase in income inequality in the UK (Cribb, Joyce and Phillip, 2012). Poverty, including child poverty, remains a real challenge. All party targets to eradicate child poverty by 2020, despite a promising start under the previous Labour government, will not be met under current social and economic conditions. This begs the question of when we began to think of education as a levelling device rather than as a sorting device? When greater numbers of children begin to pass exams, this becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution. When large numbers of students from socio-economically disadvantaged communities start to go to university, jobs do not necessarily follow. Somehow networks of privilege have a way of prevailing, and well-qualified people end up doing the same part-time unskilled work that they did as undergraduates.
So where now? We have to recognise that a system that makes it harder to excel in exams, and that creates a wider diversity of achievement will barely break the step of those who can pay to ensure the success of their children. Achievement amongst the un-schooled will drop in favour of the dull but prepared. There will be exceptions, but as a general rule, small class sizes and tight management of children’s time (no working in Macdonalds to help your mum pay the rent) result in good grades. I suggest that the answer does not lie in tinkering with schools and exam systems. We have to remove the wool from over our eyes and stop thinking that the problem (and therefore the solution) lies in our education system. Teachers are not lazy or stupid people who need politicians to force them to act in the best interests of the child, parents are not all equally able to support the education of their offspring, children are not exam fodder. Education needs to be re-claimed as a natural process of human development. All adults need to think about what they can do to induct the young into our workplaces and civic and communal spaces at local, national and international levels. Parents need to think about the needs of all young people, and not just their own children. Teaching needs to be respected as a profession for the pedagogically gifted who can stimulate, capture and accredit learning as it takes place in engaged and creative young citizens. Young people need to be allowed to lead the way towards their own fulfilment. Choice, diversity and life-long learning need to guide our future decisions. As I know from my own children and their friends, this will happen with or without us – it just depends how much of their time we are going to waste along the way.