Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 2 November 2012

GCSE English - definitely no shades of grey

The GCSE row still rumbles on, with the latest salvo being fired by Ofqual today:
Too much pressure on schools in England to get good GCSE grades led to over-generous marking of coursework by teachers, the exams watchdog concludes.
In its final report on the controversy over this summer's GCSE English exam, Ofqual says external examiners had to raise grade boundaries as a result.
This sweeping statement has sent a predictable ripple round the battlefield as the various parties involved marshal their troops accordingly.
Heads said it was "outrageous" to blame teachers for the fiasco which saw some pupils get lower grades than predicted.
Meanwhile the shadow schools minister naturally demanded that the government sort it out and the unions - most predictable of all - are bandying around words like 'scapegoat' and 'blatantly wrong':
"The accountability measures do place tremendous pressure on teachers and schools, especially at GCSE grade C, but to say that teachers would compromise their integrity to the detriment of students is an insult."
Ofqual's chief executive is clearly aware of the dangers of accusing teachers of professional misconduct and has instead taken refuge in an attitude so patronising it could curdle yoghurt:
Ms Stacey added she believed teachers had marked the test "optimistically", rather than with a deliberate intention to inflate grades. 
"They are doing their level best to do the best for their students and they are bound, given the pressures they are under, to take the most optimistic view."
All of which serves to reduce the battlefield to a chess-board; a simple black-and-white layout of opposing forces.

The unions do as they have always done and follow the classic script familiar from all those years of grade inflation - all our members are above reproach and to imply otherwise is to insult hard-working and dedicated men and women.

Ofqual, meanwhile, 'has evidence' of widespread over-marking, which it attributes to the new GCSE not being 'robust enough'; although it does not go so far as to blame teachers, it firmly lays at their door the inconsistencies that led to the adjustment of grade boundaries.

And lost in the middle is all the grey stuff - that some teachers are more scrupulous than others. Whatever the unions would have you believe, there are some teachers out there who will bend the rules to improve a pupil's grade, just as there are others who, whatever the pressures on them, would be deeply horrified at the very idea of awarding inflated marks for exam work.

Such ambiguity does not suit politics or, for that matter, media-friendly soundbites from Ofqual, who, as we know, are not themselves averse to the odd bit of behind-the-scenes tinkering with results to achieve the desired effect.

This looks very much like an attempt to bury a messy situation behind the kind of dramatic outrage that completely obscures its original cause. Look, the public will say, it's the teaching unions getting hot under the collar again; nothing to do with us.

Thus it is that, regardless of the impact on individual pupils whose teachers marked according to the strictest of criteria, the official regulator has decided to endorse what may yet come to be seen as a landmark example of unjustified collective punishment.


  1. Coursework should have SFA to do with the final result.

    Exams, exams, exams.

    Problem solved.

    But of course, as we all know, coursework is one of the methods employed to improve girls' result and lower boys' results, so it's here to stay.

  2. You are, of course, quite right - though this year's crop did 'controlled assessments' under supervision; things have already moved a long way from the original intention of coursework being done by the pupils at home with no controls at all - a plan that showed either a touching faith in human nature or a complete lack of common sense.

    The problem goes far deeper, though; one of the reasons for the popularity of coursework was competition between exam boards - those perceived to offer the best chance of a high grade were more likely to be chosen by schools. Today, we have the ludicrous system of schools using five or more different exam boards at GCSE, with all the duplicate administration and potential for error that such an arrangement entails.

    Abolishing coursework is only the first step; this should be an arena in which commercial competition has no place. We need a single national exam board, rigorous enough to restore respect for and faith in an exam system that has degenerated almost beyond recovery.

  3. If you make things far too complicated then it is not a case of if something can go wrong it will but it is a case of making it certain it will go badly wrong.

  4. Demetrius, a cutting and accurate assessment of the current situation, alas.

  5. led to over-generous marking of coursework by teachers

    And what's new this time round?

  6. "We need a single national exam board"

    I don't really see why.

    Back in the day (when I was doing O Levels etc) there were certainly several; our was "Oxford Local" but I think there were Cambridge and London equivalents, and possibly others.

    The point is not how many there are, but whether they are honest, impartial, and un-corrupt.

    In 1967, you could take that for granted.

  7. WY, that was back in the days when textbooks were universal and the exam boards weren't in the business of merchandising associated products - these days each one produces a plethora of textbooks, teaching materials and courses for teachers which apply specifically to their exams.

    It's all designed to get the schools hooked so that changing boards involves prohibitive financial outlay, however bad the service they receive.


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