Exam results season: time for the annual assault

We celebrate ‘inflation’ in Team GB’s gold medal tally, but on exam results day George Turnbull laments that the rhetoric is destined to be about grade inflation, falling standards and the need for reform.

Exam results dayThe Glorious Twelfth marks the beginning of the open season on grouse, followed shortly thereafter by the annual attack on A-level and GCSE students – who have only done what we have asked of them. But then it is the silly season when there is little ‘news’ around – although we do have the Olympic Games this year.

But don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story would seem to be the mantra that applies to exam results. One year, when pass grades had dropped in GCSE and risen in A-level, or vice versa, the popular media conclusion was that standards had fallen – in both exams.

So how would a rise of 111 per cent in top grades be interpreted in A-level or GCSE terms – which is the percentage increase in gold medals won in the 2008 Olympics by Team GB? The media would go ballistic and there would be outrage all around - because of falling standards. And this inflationary Olympic trend has continued this year with a further increase of 53 per cent in gold medals won by Team GB.

But without a doubt we shall all wholeheartedly celebrate such success, and never the point will pass our minds that standards have fallen even further. Perhaps improved effort does bring about positive change – even in education. Now there’s a thought.

‘Change’ is however, what most Governments do. And having been in education since the 1960s and exam boards since the 1970s, I have seen many initiatives which have come and gone over that time. The fact that the same ones come around and go around – perhaps with different names – is possibly not something to be proud of as a nation. Perhaps there is room for improvement here.

What’s in a name, then? Nostalgia perhaps, as with the return of the O-level as recently mooted. In itself it’s not a panacea. It never was. And employers complained that youngsters lacked some of the basic skills that they required of them – even then.  As they did, and still do, about university graduates.

And even with particularly good grades in O-level maths and English, young people couldn’t spell, punctuate, count or do mental arithmetic. In the 1970s at least one examining board introduced a series of basic tests – at the bequest of employers – to assess these skills.

The travel industry in particular complained in 1985 that that those with O-levels in Geography didn’t know where places were, and in one group of 20 trainees with an average of six good O-levels each, four thought that Manchester was in Scotland and one thought that Killarney was in Greece.

Finding our way is rather a good skill to possess and our young people can only follow the route that we navigate for them. Where we lead, they follow. They have no other option.

So here we go again, with further reforms. Is this just part of another cycle, and shall we find ourselves in a similar position 30 years or so down the track, when it is thought that a GCSE-type exam might be appropriate? Only time will tell.

Our young people have never been under so much intense pressure and uncertainty with regard to their futures and employment prospects. They will have to work longer and harder than us, that is for sure. They already do.

But success brings its own rewards, as it did in the early Games, where the victors were crowned with wreaths from a sacred olive tree that grew behind the temple of Zeus, and then marched around the grove to the accompaniment of a flute while admirers chanted songs written by a prominent poet.

Now wouldn’t that be a more fitting response to the hard work and success of our young people today, than the usual carping that they undeservedly get?

George Turnbull worked for over two decades at exam boards and later for QCA and Ofqual as the Exams Doctor, taking up to 800 questions annually from young people, parents and schools about exams.

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