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GCSE A* – a step too far?


The GCSE results came out today and the newspapers are awash with reports of a turn in the tide for the poor results and teenage drop-outs of recent years. But the images of teen geniuses waving their 12 A* papers splashed across the internet got me thinking about the quality of the education for today's youngsters. Now I know that it's an old debate, and is often countered with accusations of sour-grapes, but I do not understand how so many students are able to get such high grades. Are the exams easier? Does 100% coursework and the abolition of formal exam conditions mean we are giving our young people a leg up the career ladder or simply preparing them for a big slap in the face when it comes to the reality of the world of work? According to reports, some 21.6% of entries were graded an A* or A – an increase of 0.9 percentage points compared with 2008 and 67.1% of GCSEs gained at least a C - a rise of 1.4 percentage points. Now, I was a good student, well good at the subjects I enjoyed, getting myself As in English, English literature and French but I sucked at the other subjects. There really were only a few of the top brainy pupils that scooped majority A grades, and in addition, the highest number of subjects we were able to take was 9 - and you had to almost get a begging letter written by your parents in order to do that! However the Tories have now claimed that the Labour crack-down on underperforming schools (threats of closure where less than a third of students fail to get the regulation 5 GCSEs at grade C or above including English and Maths) have meant that schools have been focusing more on 'soft' subjects in order to boost their places in the league tables. And it certainly seems a far cry from the subject choices I was offered at school in the 1990s. Today the subjects seems so...flighty - so 'skill-less'. Contemporary dance is all very well but will it help you secure that dream job as a social worker or project manager? And more worrying yet is that foreign language entries are falling at a rate of knots with French dropping 6.6% to 188,688, German dropping by 4.2% to 73,469 and Spanish remaining stable. Yet with increasingly global competition, languages should be postively encouraged in schools. Now, before you say, 'things have changed since you were at school', I actually went back to study my A-levels and subsequently my degree when I was in my early 20s. I attained two As and a B and was thrilled - particularly as I had to work hard to get the grades, so I do understand something of what today's youngsters have to go through. My main concern, in reality, is that while we send out our teens with heads full of praise for their A grades, with so many 'high calibre' students, are we simply diluting the market? Who is going to be able to stand apart from the crowd? How can an employer know that the person they are employing is any better than the last if they have nothing different to compare them to? Whatever your thoughts are on this, claims that exams have been dumbed down continue to circulate. This is also evident by the number of private schools that are deserting GCSEs in favour of the alternative International GCSE - a much more traditional O-level-style course that favours exams over coursework. Will this be the answer? Are we just setting our young people up for a fall? Earlier this week we ran a live web chat with the National Apprentice Service and I was pleasantly surprise at how good it sounded. The apprentice came across really well and it seems pretty much a win-win situation - though as we all know, many of the government's best laid plans can come unstuck. So I'll be watching with interest to see what happens.

2 Responses

  1. comparing apples and bananas?

    This is an interesting piece

    One fact overlooked with exam results is the grade system. When many of us took our exams, the grades were awarded according to a normal distribution curve, rather than the percentage of answers correct.

    So in a given year only x% could ever get A grades, now anyone can get an A if they study hard enough.  I’m not saying one approach is better than another but we cannot compare exam results of yesteryear with today – they are not the same in many, many ways.

  2. Ticking the boxes
    Mike, you’re absolutely right about comparing different ‘grading’ systems. The distribution curve-approach certainly seems a little unfair. Your grade would end up depending to some extent on the capability of your peers on the same academic year – meaning that if you were born, say, a year later and produced the same standard of work you could end up with a different grade. When it comes to job offers requiring a certain level of qualification this could create all sorts of problems…
    However, there is also a case that the apparent/alleged ‘dumbing down’ of grades, necessitating the introduction of A* and so on devalues the GCSE. I believe one of the problems is that the focus has perhaps shifted away from education to enhance an individual’s capability and has moved towards training people in how to pass exams. I recall taking my French GCSE and being taught certain specific sentences that you could crow-bar into your responses because they would score you extra marks as they contained a subjunctive, feminine agreement and correct use of the perfect tense (i.e. two verbs=two marks). The fact that these would often be completely out of context and potentially not even understood by the person taking the exam seemed to be irrelevant – it got you the grade, but not necessarily the ability to converse and understand the language, which surely should be the ultimate objective?
    I know I’ve been guilty in previous jobs of training people how to pass a test/interview in the past (i.e. say/do the right things to tick the boxes), and this has given great measurable results (on paper) for my KPIs – e.g. number of people signing on to a management development programme – but does this actually benefit the business in the long term if these people perhaps are not the ‘right’ sort of people for this role? I realise now that I might well have just been setting these people up for failure. Conversely, I remember early in my career helping a colleague to pass a key exam required for promotion that he had failed several times. He was fantastic at his job, but without an ‘academic’ background didn’t really know how to ‘learn’ in an academic sense. All I did was teach him ‘how’ to learn, and after he passed the exam and secured his promotion he rocketed through, overtook me and became a real high-flier, letting his business results speak for themselves. He probably never again looked at the content of the exam in question, so with hindsight I would question whether this was the best assessment tool.
    Which opens up yet another can of worms – are GCSEs and A-Levels and even Degrees the best way of assessing capability? Answers in a postcard…
    And that phrase that gets you a French GCSE in one sentence? I still remember it after all those years…
    “C’etait la chose la plus surprenante que j’aie jamais vue de ma vie!”

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