Stories + Views
The Doublethink of standards: zero-tolerance to failure but more pupils are expected to fail
The PM told the House of Commons Liaison Committee that Mr Gove was bringing in “a standards revolution” which would “raise the bar on failure. You have to be very tough on failure. You have to have great rigour in what we teach and the exams that we have. There should be no dumbing-down of standards, and we have to accept that that sometimes means that results might get worse before they get better.”
So, failure will not be tolerated – but what is failure? The Sutton Report 2008 quoted Lord Adonis saying that academies played a role in the “eradication of failure”. But if no pupils fail then who can be said to succeed? Will the goal posts be set so low that all will pass? No, says the PM, exams will be more rigorous and there will be more failures. At the same time, though, schools will be expected to ensure that fewer pupils fail. In Orwell’s eyes, that’s Doublethink.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)* warned in 2011 that there is too much emphasis on raw exam results in England which could lead to declining standards. And yet the PM talks of schools being judged on these raw results without considering the context in which schools operate. OECD* cited the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score as being one measure by which the effectiveness of schools could be measured but the Government has abandoned CVA. The Education Endowment Foundation (2011) found that many below-floor schools were doing a good job in difficult circumstances and concluded that the context in which a school operated needed to be taken into account. But this Government and the new head of Ofsted trumpet, “No excuses!”
The Sutton Report noted that under the Labour Government the definition of failure was fluid: definitions of school performance had changed, the term “standards” was used in diverse ways and there had been a growing number of indicators, targets and benchmarks which caused confusion because schools classed as “failing” in some measures could be succeeding in others.
Politicians were, and still are, falling over themselves to appear more macho than their predecessors in raising “standards”. But this is causing standards to fall. When GCSEs were first taken in 1988 the average 16-year-old was expected to gain a grade E and low attainers were awarded G, the threshold for basic literacy and numeracy. Grade C demonstrated above-average ability while A, the top grade, was for exceptional high-fliers. Now, thanks to constant rhetoric about standards, anything below a C is regarded as poor. Lord Adonis said, “only six in ten 16-year-olds achieve a decent GCSE standard, compared to between eight and nine in ten reaching an equivalent standard in leading systems abroad, including Singapore, Finland and South Korea.” **
Mr Gove doesn’t just regard anything under a Grade C as poor – in his eyes it’s a sign of illiteracy and innumeracy. A Grade C, remember, was once regarded as a sign of above-average ability – now, according to Mr Gove, it’s an exam grade which can be achieved by anyone with the most basic level of literacy and numeracy.
If Mr Gove were really serious about standards he would recalibrate GCSE to 1987 levels while at the same time follow the advice given by OECD*: reduce the emphasis on raw exam results as the sole measure of success to eradicate teaching to the test and “gaming”; ensure that important non-cognitive skills are not neglected; scrap competing examination boards and introduce more sophisticated ways of measuring school success.
*OECD Economic Surveys UK 2011, not available freely on the internet but details about how to obtain a copy are here.
** Lord Adonis’s comparison with other countries doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. While it’s true that 80% of pupils in Singapore gain 5 ‘O’ levels (2008 figures), in Finland and South Korea there is no equivalent to the UK GCSE examination. In Finland, pupils at the end of compulsory (age 16) receive a basic education certificate after a final assessment based on the objectives of basic education. In Korea, there is no national examination on completion of lower secondary phase education (age 15+) although some upper secondary scgools ask pupils to take an entrance examination.