Exam turmoil raises bigger question’s about young people’s futures

 Martin Allen


If the fall in the number of top A-level grades was enough to start alarm bells ringing, it is the first ever dip in GCSE performance, particularly the down grading in English, which has been greeted with dismay by teachers.  Exam boards have been the target for much of the anger, being accused of altering grade boundaries mid-term. The boards have also been accused of giving in to pressure from exam watchdog Ofqual.

Though Michael Gove has denied involvement, few believe him as it’s no secret he considers exam standards have been ‘dumbed down’, with the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching spelling out the need for change.  As a result from this September the modular GCSE will be replaced by a linear syllabus with ‘end of course’ exams and spelling and grammar given a new emphasis.  We can also expect further changes to A-levels as Gove seeks to restore its ‘gold standard’ reputation.

Yet there is no consistent research evidence that either GCSEs or A-levels have got ‘easier’. It may be the case that learning has become more ‘bite sized’ and that students write answers in line with what mark schemes now require, but young people still have to work extremely hard to succeed.  Many of the arguments about grade inflation are also hotchpotch. If the criteria for top grades is clearly set out – and it should be, then if more youngsters are prepared to put the work in, it goes without saying that more will be awarded.

Likewise if they are going to be made ‘tougher’ (with the inclusion of more of Gove’s ‘important facts’?) schools and their teachers, under pressure to meet targets will continue to spend large amounts of time of exam technique and ‘question spotting’   and  use every available loophole to secure advantage. Especially, if schools that don’t hit the target of 40% A-C GCSE face closure to reopen as academies or free schools!

The White Paper and the more recent Experts Report on changes to the National Curriculum, argue that the proposed reforms reflect practices in the education systems of economically successful countries – for example, Singapore and South Korea. For many critics though, Gove’s offensive is a continuation of the New Right ‘restorationist’ agenda of the 1980s  and  in particular a step back to the grammar school era (www.radicaled.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/back-to-the-grammar-school/) with only the opposition of Liberal Democrats standing in the way of a reintroduction of the old O-level and CSE divide.

Gove’s policies also reflect a change the more general relationship between education and society however. In the heady days of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and ‘no more return to boom and bust’ education became the new economic policy of the government with annual increases in examination grades representing increases in the ‘human capital’ necessary to take advantage of the opportunities the globalised economy was said to provide – social mobility into high skilled,  well paid employment.

In contrast, with the economy in recession, if not in terminal decline and with the number of secure ‘professional’   jobs being well short of the number of those both qualified and able to perform them; rather than seen to be promoting mass social mobility (however illusionary) there is increasing awareness among European political and business elites that education needs to be restored as an agent of social control.  Opportunities need to be rationed and ‘excellence’ confined as something for the few. More generally, it isn’t necessary to have as many young people in higher education and they should be steered to apprenticeships instead – even if most employers don’t really need them.

In fact, the continued collapse of employment prospects means that rather than needing to be encouraged to remain in school or college, most young people see they have little choice but to jump through whatever hoops placed in front of them, despite EMA being abolished and the huge hike in university tuition fees. A combination of Gove’s policies and the current economic reality however, suggests this may no longer continue to be the case.

In the meantime however, thousands of school and college students have been badly let down and other teacher organisations should fall in behind the National Association of Head teachers demand for an independent enquiry.  Campaigns for a fairer and more reliable system of examinations, can only win the backing of young people.

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