Exam upheaval in England fails to achieve stated goals and downgrades education
Alleged ‘grade inflation’ hasn't ended
Remember when Michael Gove used to bang on about grade inflation? His reformed GCSEs, rushed, untrialled, and unevaluated, were supposed to tackle that supposed sin.
But they haven’t.
If exams are harder, and they are, pupils should achieve lower grades. But that hasn’t happened. Grade boundaries have been moved so the same proportion ‘pass’.
‘Pass’ in government parlance means grades 4 and above. In its eyes, anything less is not good.
When did this invidious division of GCSE grades into good and bad begin? No-one referred to good passes when GCSEs replaced CSEs and O Levels. All grades were a pass. They were labelled to show a pupil’s individual achievement: basic (G) to outstanding (A).
But over the years a malign inference took hold. Anything less than a C was a sign of failure.
This subversion of the philosophy behind GCSE was accompanied by an increased emphasis on GCSE results and league tables. The OECD warned about the negative effects of this in 2011.
Exam system now drives education
Exams now drive the education system in England rather than being education’s servant. Ofsted’s 2018 report into teacher attitudes shows four in ten secondary teachers think their schools value league table position more than education quality. Fewer than a quarter of secondary teachers believe their school deliberately concentrates on ‘what’s best’ for pupils rather than overall exam results.
The excessive emphasis on exam results has increased suspicions of off-rolling whereby schools exclude pupils likely to bring down test results. 21% of teachers had experienced off-rolling in their schools, the same Ofsted report shows.
The quality of education offered in English schools is downgraded by a narrowing of the curriculum in upper primary and during Key Stages 3 and 4. The growing practice of starting GCSE courses in Year 9 means pupils have to make subject choices even earlier. Their right to a broad, balanced curriculum ends even earlier.
English exam system not in line with high-performing countries
Michael Gove said exam reform was necessary in England to ‘reflect’ demands made in ‘high-performing jurisdictions’. So keen was he to make high-performing jurisdictions match his reforms that he commissioned not one, but two, reports investigating overseas exam systems*.
This research showed most high-performing countries do not have high stakes exams at the end of lower secondary (typically age 15/16). If they took place they were few in number and used to decide upper secondary progression. Crucially, they were NOT used to rank schools. It's difficult to see how reforming exams at 16 has pegged England to high-performing countries when they don't have such exams.
The new exam system in England fails on these two counts. It hasn’t tackled alleged grade inflation. It hasn’t brought England’s exam system in line with high-performing countries. Instead, exam reform has distorted the curriculum, downgraded education quality, encouraged more ‘gaming’ and greatly increased stress on pupils, their parents and teachers.
*The first was commissioned from NFER. Its results are summarised here together with our own research into jurisdictions not included in the NFER research. Two years later, Gove asked Ofqual to research thirteen exam systems including eight already studied by NFER. Gove could have saved Ofqual’s time if he'd read the earlier report and our FAQ.