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The Exam Scandal

December 13, 2011

In case you’ve missed it, the extent to which the exam system has been “gamed” by schools has recently been exposed by an investigation in the Telegraph. In particular, the extent to which exam boards and examiners offer training which tips off schools about the likely content of exams, and boast about the easiness of their exams has been exposed through filming with a hidden camera.

For most teachers this is less than shocking. We all know that schools play the system, and this is no different to all the other practices schools use to inflate results, such as putting kids in for worthless vocational qualifications, focussing resources on “borderline” students or the cycle of retakes used to pass modular exams. Combined with removal of material from the curriculum, and low pass marks, almost all exams have become a much devalued currency, although it hasn’t stopped denialists claiming that actually it’s just that kids are much smarter and better taught these days  .

Most of the comment I’ve seen from all parts of the political spectrum has concluded a couple of very obvious things:

1) The examination system is not very good.

2) Exam boards should not be competing for business.

I haven’t yet seen any dissent from this. It’s too obvious for words and so I’m not going to add to it.

However, I have seen a few other rather annoying opinions that I think are worth highlighting.

Firstly, it would be too much to hope that a lack of academic rigour in the exam system would be seen by everyone as grounds for increasing the rigour of exams. It didn’t take long for people to suggest that the problem was not that the exams weren’t testing academic knowledge properly, but the very idea that academic knowledge is the point of schooling.  One Guardian journalist who presumably hasn’t been inside a classroom in a comprehensive school for 40 years declared that the real problem was that schools don’t teach “the value of motivation, persistence and self-belief“. A blog by (you guessed it) a consultant seemed to suggest that the focus on exams was a distraction from students being “fully engaged in their subject study as part of a much wider and more engaging whole curriculum, and through being resilient, adaptable, motivated and happy independent learners”. Both appear to think that the answer to a exam system which lacks academic rigour is a school system that does too. Worse, there is simply no acknowledgment that all of the above has been rammed down teachers’ throats continually for decades. The answer to manifest collapses in education standards is always more of the same type of thinking that lowered standards in the first place.

Another issue raised by the scandal is one mentioned several times in this Guardian article: pressure on schools from league tables. Now whereas the above arguments for making education less academic were nonsense from start to finish, this one is more of a matter of degree. Examinations, accountability and competition between schools can be excessive. Anyone who doubts this should look at some of the horror stories Diane Ravitch has reported from America in her recent book.  However, by comparison the fear of accountability in the English school system reflects little more than the dread of being found out. We know this because where schools are known to be good, which unfortunately is too often only in the private schools, they do not care about league tables. It was common for top independent schools to come bottom of the league tables by not doing GCSEs. (Have a look at the two bottom schools in Warwickshire in 2009, who’d want to go to them?) Even OFSTED was not aenough of a threat to ensure compliance from prestigious parts of the private sector. Any number of top schools were damned by OFSTED under its mad tickbox assessments.  I don’t want to suggest that just because top private schools are confident enough in their reputation to ignore crazy forms of accountability then everyone can, but it does suggest that you can have a reputation for academic standards without league table confirmation and OFSTED approval by … wait for it… having academic standards. We probably do need to review the way schools are held to account, and I am glad to see that changes in the direction of academic rigour are underway, but we should not forget that if school managers are more scared of a middling league table position than of failing their pupils then that suggests a problem with their attitude and their values as much as it does a problem with the system.

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36 comments

  1. I understand your criticism of the nostrums of others but I’m less clear about what you think would be better. It’s true that a small fraction of independent schools don’t need the accreditation of exam boards to sustain their reputation – but their students do. Writing ‘Eton College’ on your UCAS form might help but it doesn’t actually get you a place at Oxford (though your dad leaving them a hefty endowment might). Independent schools are generally very focussed on the purpose of schools exams – smoothing the path to a university place. While that is achieved via A levels, that’s where they will focus their efforts. IBACC will do fine as an alternative and, when/if universities reintroduce specific admissions exams, they’ll switch to those.

    The trouble is that most schools have to allow for a wider range of valuable outcomes for their students – not just university places. So how does the exam system serve the needs of the students – in your world?


    • I haven’t suggested anything here because the solutions to the main problem (exam boards competing) is too obvious (stop exam boards competing). Here I am just addressing attempts to make it about non-existent problems – too much academic rigour and too stringent accountability.

      With regard to “wider range of outcomes”. There should only be one main outcome of education: students who are smarter than when they went in.

      The idea that we need to have two lots of outcomes, one for the university bound types and one for the plebs is objectionable in itself. It’s as if people think we have a problem of school leavers walking around weighed down by having too much knowledge in their head that they will never use. In actual fact the problem tends to be the same whether people go into employment, training or further study: too little knowledge and a lack of basic academic skills.


      • It seems to me we have a habit of teaching kids to pass exams for the sake of passing exams

        Thinking back to my days at school the best teachers I had weren’t in the subjects I did best in. They not only taught the syllabus but taught a passion for the subject that would peak my interests later on in life

        For me, I don’t think anybody is/should be surprised by what’s in these videos any if they are then perhaps they need to take their head out of the sand


  2. (Yes, this is the same comment I put on Frank Chalk’s blog. You said you hadn’t heard any dissent. You have now.)

    -

    Not true!

    There isn’t any competition between exam boards on quality, because the QCA makes sure they all inflate their grades together.

    There USED to be competition, and everybody knew which were worthwhile and which were not. People who just want a Stifficate can do Nuffield science. People who want to learn science did JMB.

    And everyone could tell who was who, which is the point.

    -

    That was the excuse used to invent the Qualifications and Curriculum authority, and we all know what that did to standards.

    But competition making things worse? When I went to 6th form we chose the school because it was a good academic 6th form. The school chose JMB sciences because they were known to be better (i.e. harder).

    Everybody knew that a Nuffield B was a JMB C.

    It’s only government that can make us (pretend to) treat unequal qualifications equally – like all those worthless qualifications which are “worth the same” as 4 GCSEs.

    No, they aren’t. Ask any employer!

    Standards were set by the likes of JMB. If the Nuffields fell too far behind, nobody took them seriously, and they lost customers.

    There was no “race to the bottom”, because the customers (parents and students) and THEIR customers (employers and universities) are NOT STUPID.


    • I think you are wrong about “everyone”. I think some of the middle classes did, perhaps, know the good and the bad exams. I don’t think everyone did and most depended on schools to make those decisions responsibly. Let’s face it, if everyone knew the score half the dumbing-down would have been challenged by governing bodies. It wasn’t challenged because the only people who knew what was going on, the school managers, let it happen.


  3. The point remains that before the QCA there was competition between the exam boards, yet without the dumbing down (certainly not to the same extent – A levels seem to have inflated by two or three grades since I did them).

    For governing bodies to challenge effectively they need the ability to choose a different exam board with higher standards. Without competition there is nowhere to go, and nothing to do but complain upwards to the very people who are deliberately causing the problem.

    It was the centralisation and nationalisation of quality which caused the dumbing down. More centralisation and more nationalisation is not the answer.


    • The QCA was formed in 1997. That is certainly not the start of dumbing-down. The single biggest act of vandalism was probably the creation of the GCSE in the late 1980s. Modularisation was also underway years before 1997, at least for A-level.

      Nor does that mark the beginning of a problem of competition between exam boards. The following is from Melanie Phillips’s “All Must Have Prizes” written in 1996:

      This combination of the ideology of being kind to pupils and the political imperative of giving the appearance of higher educational standards received added impetus from the developing pressures of market forces. During the 1980s, as schools were given more autonomy in running their own affairs, the examination boards were sucked into a market that became more and more competitive. Schools started to shop around quite cynically for exam boards that would give their pupils a greater chance of success – in other words, for boards with lower standards. Later, when league tables were introduced by which parents could compare schools’ exam results, that competition was to become cut-throat. So the boards responded in kind.

      ‘Even the Oxford and Cambridge board was dropping its standards’ said horrocks. ‘They were in the market and they were losing candidates. I wrote to the secretary of the board saying I wasn’t going to collaborate with giving A-level grades to pupils who weren’t capable of more than pidgin German. I knew what I was talking about because I had seen the papers. I took part in a national exercise comparing A-level boards…There was a general pattern of a reduction in standards which was hidden away in the mark schemes.’…

      … Horrocks is not alone in his assessment. The London Mathematical Society’s report observed that `league tables encourage schools to move their examination entries to what are seen as “less demanding” examination boards – and the working group was supplied with compelling evidence that this was happening.


      • “The single biggest act of vandalism was probably the creation of the GCSE in the late 1980s.”

        I think it’s a lot more complex than that. In 1981, I sat several 16+ exams, which were the experimental precursors to the GCSE: there was a single syllabus, and a single exam, at the end of which you were awarded both an O Level (A-U) and a CSE (1-whatever). As a result I have, somewhere, a certificate for some CSE 1s alongside my O Levels. The experimental aspect was in attempting to produce a single set of exams which could delimit both the A/B boundary and the 5/6 boundary, which ultimately resulted in the tiering of the GCSE. My recollection is that in 1981, we sat more papers than we would have done for straight O Levels, with the range of questions being wider to provide something for the CSE grade boundaries to use; in concept, that’s effectively like everyone sitting both Foundation and Higher tier papers in one exam session.

        I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that the 16+ papers of the era were limited or lower standard as compared to the then-current O Levels, and at the school I attended the departments that were involved in the pilot were the departments headed by some of the most hard-line “standards standards standards” people. What they wanted to avoid was the problem of having to decide at 14 which syllabus people should be studying, as in some subjects (History, notably), there was essentially no commonality. Some subjects did manage to run mid-ability sets which left open both options (Maths, for example) but complained that the extra work of covering the union of the two syllabuses meant that students who might have passed O Level were less likely to because of the extra burden of keeping the CSE option open — the CSE maths syllabus was certainly not a strict subset of O Level. And most unfairly, the differences in set works meant that people were absolutely committed to CSE or O Level English at 14 with almost no way to move across.

        People who casually dismiss the GCSE as the cause of all the “problems” (although what the “problems” are is often left unstated) need to be clear what they think the alternative was or is. Because the O Level/CSE split provided another form of selection, with even weaker governance and strong postcode lotteries, at 14. And just as it’s stated, but not widely believed, that GCSEs are normed to O levels and that various vocational courses have some equivalence, a CSE 1 was claimed to be equal to an O Level except no-one believed it.


        • Here I agree with both of you to some extent. Yes, the O levels had to change for the reasons Tokyo mention- plus they were actually slightly too hard for the general population. so there needed to be a consolidation and a slight lowering of the C boundary to make them more accessible.

          However, Oldandrew is correct in that they are now far too easy and have an over reliance on coursework (another issue that i would agree with Gove on).

          They all should have a nice mix of skills and facts and so I would not change the content of GCSEs now too much except for the inclusion on a few more facts and formulae.

          There was also a feeling back in the day that 0-levels were too reliant on facts and recall- this was entirely untrue- the old 0-levels were far more intellectually demanding than GCSEs including in the realms of lateral thinking and problem solving.


          • Unfortunately, it’s impossible to discuss relative difficulty of exams without politics, ideology and a strong whiff of “we walked six miles to t’pit and paid t’owner for privilege” nostalgia entering into the proceedings. Everyone has a position, largely based on anecdote, and there is a distinct lack of evidence and even, really, research objectives. No sooner do people admit that learning facts is not the goal than exams of today and exams of decades ago are compared on, largely, the factual content.

            My impression from watching my children through state education is that there is less factual content, more subject skills, a lot more study and learning skills, better standards of teaching (actually, _much_ better standards of teaching — the best are no better, but there simply isn’t the long tail of people who shouldn’t have been in the business but no-one was willing to either force to improve or force to leave that there was in the 1970s) and much better assessment and tracking within the school, together with much better intervention. Girls are also expected to do as well as boys (indeed, now the gender imbalance is the other way around) and everyone is expected to stay until 16. So I’d say that a lot of the supposed grade inflation is an inevitable consequence of more children being taught better, with better-defined objectives, better monitoring and more resources, for longer. But it’s just anecdote, and the real evidence is notable in its absence.


          • agreed its difficult to compare eras but there has been some research suggesting standards have dramatically dropped. There have been more populist things like TV docs and newspaper question comparisons too.

            Notably there was a channel 4 doc ‘that will teach em’ that took GCSE A/A* kids and put them though a 4 week 50′s style boot camp. They all failed their subsequent 50′s standards o-level.

            so thats A* gcse kids not even getting the lowest grade on a 1950s 0-level.

            whilst its impossible to do the reverse test i think its safe to say a 50s grammar kids would have breezed through todays GCSEs even if they hadn’t had a 2011 style boot camp.

            on an anecdotal level standards have dropped in the last 20 years in my opinion but not to the degree that program revealed.

            as to quality of teaching? difficult one. I actually think thats reduced in quality in most areas and so little is required of the kids and they have so many ‘crutches’ to their learning from computers, calculators, formulae sheets and the like. I actually think a good mix of teaching styles is best- I certainly agree with oldandrew that there IS a place for lectures, instruction, extended writing and independent learning.

            But i also do thing group work, project work, presentations and other techniques have their place too (provided they are used on an occasional basis only).


  4. i’m not too sure i agree with either of you here.

    i think there should be one national exam board with a curriculum agreed on by all 3 major parties and then LEFT ALONE for 15 years.

    Exams should be done at 16 and 18. Get rid of the expensive modular resit scam.

    (I guess well down to Gove on this in making the gcses linear)

    Exams should be rigourous and have multiple choice sections (for economy) and free writing sections (to prove depth of knowledge and understanding).

    Effectiveness of schools (GCSE results) should be judged against national, standardised CATs tests in Y4 & Y7. FFT should be ditched (imagine using flawed ks2 sats data?) although Im happy to have recognition of FSM, post code and other factors.

    All 16 yos should have to sit this national exam allowing ease of comparison for academics, politicians and parents.

    thus a D would be D wherever you went in the country for GCSE and A-level.

    There should be a recognition that not everyone is cut out for academia. In the 80′s 5% went to uni. Now 40% do- this is insane.

    Do 40% of all jobs need a degree? education is time consuming, expensive and ‘wasteful’ thus it cannot be dished out pointlessly.

    30% of out most talented students should get these educational opportunities based on their talent.

    Background should not be a barrier. The only thing that should cause a student to lose their uni opportunity should be obnoxious conduct or lack of talent/ability.

    There should be a national code of conduct forcing schools to keep all students to a certain standard of conduct. i.e. if you use the ‘f*ck” word= suspension. 3 suspensions= expulsion. 2 expulsions = borstal. that kinda thing.

    This means you won’t have exam boards cheating. teachers CANT cheat. parents and employers know what the grades mean. tax payers dont have to keep buying new text books from pearson (cartel anyone?) , taxpayers dont pay so much for modules system, kids behave themselves and standards for conduct and learning get pushed up across the board.

    In the future there is no reason that schools in the bottom 5% in a league table cannot still be doing a good job in terms of CVA for their kids. if that happens then all parents and kids get a great deal- thats what i would aim for and i see that as a perfectly plausible aim providing you are willing to fight obstructive parents, rude kids, mollycoddlers, greedy companies and misguided inspectors/advisors.


    • I’m very sceptical of efforts to simply guess what proportion of the UK population could be suitable for university education, particularly with all the “it’s only for the likes of us” implications that go with it. While I think that making sure every degree is actually worth having is more important than the largest possible number of people having a degree, we should be aware that an increasing number of countries have a higher proportion of graduates than us: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/sep/07/education-graduation-oecd-university


    • Do you think schools have any part to play in teaching spelling, grammar or punctuation?


  5. Higher-education takeup was about 15% in the late 1980s, not 5%. Figure 1, page 4, http://goo.gl/i1WIZ Numbers had been pretty stable since the 1970s, once the effect of the Robbins report had shaken out. There wasn’t significant expansion in 18–21 provision between 1980 and 1990 other than to deal with the rise in birthrate that had peaked in the mid to late 1960s. So the %age takeup rose to counteract the reduction in the size of the cohort. Those who believe there’s some magic in a particular %age takeup being blessed by God would presumably see universities closing in quantity through the 1980s as a preferable alternative.

    A lot of the increase in %age takeup in the 1990s is the result of massively falling birthrates in the 1970s, as you can see from pages 7 and 10 of http://goo.gl/NNH3U — the birthrate collapsed in the late sixties, with the result that the number of degrees awarded in the UK remained pretty well constant through the 1980s even though the percentages rose.

    Moreover, those who believe that there was a perfect take-up handily ignore the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s more than 80% of degrees were awarded to men (op. cit., p. 11). Redressing this balance inevitably means that a greater %age of the population goes to university, unless you want to argue that men who went to university in the 1950s were not deserving of doing so merely because women weren’t allowed. If 5% of men but only 1% of women go to university, unless you believe that women are five times less capable, merely keeping “standards” the same while removing the sexual discrimination will result in overall takeup nearly doubling.


    • A similar point to the one about gender can be made about class. If we believe that all social classes should have similar opportunities to the well-off, then either participation as a percentage will have to rise or a large slice of the better off will have to be shut out.

      Even if we don’t and want to keep university education mainly as a middle class finishing school, then the gradual increase of the proportion of the population accounted for by the middle classes will also increase the percentage going to university. We can argue that HE expanded too fast, but it is hard to argue that it shouldn’t generally be expanding.


  6. I was recently told by a careers advisor in the past month that in the early 80′s it was ’5%’ but if its actually 14% (from the link) then my point I think still stands. And i heard Ed Milliband say he wants it to rise from 40% to 60%.

    The same advisor says that in the private and public sectors combined ‘about’ 30% of jobs need a degree and thats a ‘generous’ estimate. For the sake of tax payers someone has to make a guess don’t they? I would imagine for every lawyer there are a lot of supermarket till operators?

    Every human is capable of SOME form of further education but Im not sure that such a noble whim can be indulged can it? cos someone has to pay.

    Also, somebody has to sweep the roads and empty the bed pans. If its 30% of jobs that need a degree then the top 30% get to go to uni. Sorry other 70%!

    Sorry middle class Penelope, you will not be able to do your Media Studies Degree cos lower class Kevin got a higher GCSE average than you. He gets to go- can’t stay fairer than that…

    Of course children have a right, in a civilised society to a decent education up to 16 so they can read, right, think and choose. But to go further than that as a default is misguided I think.

    Education is very expensive and our students tend to get wasted most of the 3 years and then crash revise for 2 weeks every summer to scrape a 2.2. Someone tell me why this is good for the economy?

    Wouldn’t they be better off working in a factory, contributing to the economy, and paying taxes?

    And what of the graduates that can’t get a job post uni- apparently this was an issue BEFORE the recession! does this suggest we have more degrees than jobs? shouldn’t there be a law of supply and demand?

    Sorry if Im sounding elitist or old fashioned but I can’t see the wisdom in ever expanding further education. what we need is quality graduates trained for jobs that exist, not poor quality graduates trained for things that either don’t exist or if they did, are of questionable merit.

    Now will someone please study my ‘media’ for me!


    • Nobody is arguing for poor quality degrees. However, we cannot look at the current jobs market and say “well we need x% of the current crop of young people to have a degree”. The nature of the knowledge and abilities required by the job market is not constant; it changes dramatically with every ebb and flow of the economic tide. We can make predictions as to what might be required over time, but that’s where the pressure for expanding HE places came from in the first place: the prediction that the number of jobs with graduate level requirements will tend to increase over time.


      • It’s also, I think, shockingly instrumentalist to see university education as purely preparation for work. Educated parents tend to have more successful children who present fewer problems in schools (indeed, low average parental education is one of the classic markers of deprivation) so people who never “use” their degree nonetheless hand on its values to their children. The whole ethos of the WEA, and later the OU, was that just because you sweep the streets (to use your dismissive phrase) doesn’t mean you can’t listen to, and understand, Shostakovich, and the idea that degrees not directly applied in the workplace are somehow a waste, to either the individual or society at large, seems extraordinarily dirigiste.

        There also aren’t the factories that you appear to believe are lacking in labour; if this country is to continue with the current standard of living — which affects us all, as it’s the tax that pays for the NHS and the pensions that the “elitist or old fashioned” will rely on in their old age — then it cannot do so by semi-skilled labour in mass production factories, even if those industries still exist. We don’t entirely know what a post-industrial society looks like, but whatever it does look like, it looks more educated than an industrial one.

        The 1950s and the 1960s are a story of under-providing higher-education. That made the value of the golden ticket for the lucky winners much higher, but destroyed large parts of our economy: indeed, one could easily, were one looking for a social history PhD topic, argue that the descent into madness of the management of the car, motorcycle and aircraft industry was a direct result of their inability to recruit skilled, educated managers and therefore having to fall back on narrow-minded amateurs. What matters to our economy now is not the demand for educated 22 year olds in 2015, but the demand for educated 42 year olds in 2035. If it turns out we need fewer than we’re currently producing, then the chances are that our economy is completely ruined anyway, and even then, parents who have an education tend to pass that on to their children. I know people who graduated in the eighties, married and immediately had children, and who have never worked beyond a little light charity work: their children, however, have done very well indeed.

        No one ever died wishing they’d have less education, and no society ever failed because there were too many people who knew things about stuff. If you don’t think we can afford the cost of education, you should see the cost of ignorance.


  7. oldandrew,
    it seems to me that if we allow 60% of students to do degrees then degree quality must suffer to some extent.

    I agree one cant make EXACT predictions- but I have been informed that even 30% is a very generous slice allowing a lot of margin for error if one underestimates say, the ICT sector over the next 30yrs.

    I appreciate some manual jobs can now be done by machines and that this trend will increase but is it not the case that vast majority of jobs over the next 20 yrs will not require a degree?

    And don’t forget the current ’40%’ of young people that are doing degrees have A-levels and GCSE’s that were far less demanding than 20 years ago….


  8. tokyo,
    i didn’t say purely- and i rather like the concept of a learned society.

    but I’m also aware of underfunding in the NHS whilst an able person who could be helping build a hospital somewhere is doing a sociology degree on crappy A-levels.

    i accept family background confers unfair advantage- I’m all for CATs tests to be compulsory for university admissions criteria.

    and I’m all for coming from a great school as counting against a candidate.

    I’m quite fair minded like that.

    and I’m not anti-education. I’m very much in favour of good education. But that doesnt have to include 16+ formal education.

    of course with the net we are all free to research, blog and self educate to our hearts content- why do we need a piece of pompous paper if its all about self enrichment?

    Im not sure your analysis of the downfall of the uk motor industry would be automatically endorsed by all. Would not wage rates, union interference, better competitors, steel costs and other factors not be a possible contributory factor?

    Lastly, my bit about student ‘laxness’ hasn’t ben addressed. A significant section of out student population are not, how shall we say, the most industrious of creeds….

    i think there are some in our society, who haven’t and never will go to college, and notwithstanding the new funding arrangements, that might fairly ask…. for a bit of ‘bang for their buck.’


    • Rob – Do you really believe that candidates who went to a “great school” should have it counted against them? Do you honestly think that is “fair-minded”? And if so, how far down that road would you wish to travel? Should going to a great university also count against you?
      Do you see any irony in writing anacolutha such as “A significant section of out student population are not, how shall we say, the most industrious of creeds….” on a blog which has the improvement of educational standards as its chief aim?


      • in the uk they already do- universities have to take a quota of kids from poorer schools. its controversial but is an attempt to level the playing field.

        should it also apply to uni post grads?- i think that would be difficult to enforce and probably not desirable anyhow.

        i believe it is a statement of fact that a large proportion of students (who enjoy 20 weeks hols a yr) spend a lot of their time in pubs or in bed. they copy essays, miss lectures and tutorials and they revise for the 2 weeks before the yearly exams and muddle through.

        i know its not all students and varies from uni to uni and course to course- but we all know its true. part of me says ‘good luck to em’- but its a tall order to justify it to the taxpayer.

        i know some lecturers that watch the graduation of some students who can barely write a coherent sentence of english. some degrees quite literally are not worth the paper they are written on.

        anyway – oldandrew has highlighted lazy students many a time- its not ironic- its merely observational.


  9. There are some things that are not best run by the bottom line. Education is obviously one of them. Clearly we are unsure about what the overall goals of education are and thus we end up with such confused and contradictory policies.


  10. In case anyone is in any doubt about who the exam results are really for now, here’s an interesting tale. (Oh and Anthony this might go some way to highlighting one of the overall goals of education these days). A pupil who left a school near where I live in the last couple of years spent most of the Autumn term , I hear, on a Maths resit course at a local college as they didn’t get their C in the Summer exam. On the day of the annual certificate presentation evening they found out that their appeal had been successful and they’d actually got a C in the end. The Head of Maths also found this out on the same day.
    This I think is intimately linked to the idea of wanting to teach exactly what’s needed and no more, and the origin of one of my most hated phrases from a pupil, “do we need this for the exam?”


  11. How on earth does the hardly unsurprising news that (a) people who fail exams sometimes re-sit them after a bit of a revision course somewhere else and (b) sometimes re-marking results in marginal fails becoming marginal passes, say anything, let alone anything “intimately linked”, about the prevalence of teaching to the test? For all you know, the original school was teaching to the test, the college they went to was teaching more broadly and the re-mark made one mark’s difference, sufficient to move over the D/C boundary. The evidence you present says nothing beyond “sometimes people re-set exams” and “not all first-pass marking is found to be 100% accurate”. That’s it.

    Sometimes, one thinks that Critical Thinking A Level has a lot to offer.


    • You miss the point entirely – the improved grade was from the appeal, not the resit, which hadn’t been taken by then, the pupil was one term into a year’s course. No-one thought to tell the ex-pupil or the head of department that the appeal had been successful. So who was the appeal for if the SMT did not bother to inform the pupil or the HoD?


      • perhaps the improved grade would enhance the students CV sometime in the future? but yes, institutions benefit from higher pass rates of course.

        appeals are quite cheap- my school advises kids do them as a matter of course if the kids are within 5 marks of a boundary. Its suprising how many go up although last year i had a kid go down!! (dont even ask how that happened!- or even that the board were willing to admit such incompetence when they really didn’t need to)


  12. “The 1950s and the 1960s are a story of under-providing higher-education. That made the value of the golden ticket for the lucky winners much higher, but destroyed large parts of our economy: indeed, one could easily, were one looking for a social history PhD topic, argue that the descent into madness of the management of the car, motorcycle and aircraft industry was a direct result of their inability to recruit skilled, educated managers and therefore having to fall back on narrow-minded amateurs.
    Anybody writing a PhD on these grounds is going to struggle. The reason why the car industry disappeared in the UK was mainly due to the power of the trade unions. All sorts of crazy practices were permitted, It was very clear that the whole shambolic mess was heading for the rocks. I know I was a very junior engineering manager at the time.
    As for the managers not having degrees well many of them did have the equivalent having passed the Engineering Council’s extremely rigorous examinations whilst holding down a full time job. An experienced Chartered Engineer would easily outclass a 24 year old graduate. A young Russell group graduate was no match for a mendacious 40 year old ex national service production line operative backed up by an aggressive shop steward. In my view the narrow minded amateurs were the young graduate engineers. Oh and I do have a degree and I have socialist leanings.


  13. “Notably there was a channel 4 doc ‘that will teach em’ that took GCSE A/A* kids and put them though a 4 week 50′s style boot camp. They all failed their subsequent 50′s standards o-level.

    so thats A* gcse kids not even getting the lowest grade on a 1950s 0-level.”

    Of, conversely, an A* iGCSE student getting an A at O Level with a day’s preparation. The plural of anecdote is not evidence (and, of course, you’ll now respond with more anecdote about the difference between iGCSE and GCSE). http://goo.gl/aMAJf

    The difference in this case appears to mostly be about content, not standard (matrices).

    More commentary http://goo.gl/Lx2b2

    Until people have evidence, simply trotting out anecdote based on tiny sample sizes gets us nowhere. Every generation claims that the exams it took are better than the exams the next takes: it’s part of getting old.


    • eh? but your link’s author and comments at its bottom suggest the GCSE WAS easier.

      and your final assertion is untrue- I’m quite sure the 80s o-levels that i took were easier than those in the 60′s.

      i remember our geography teacher asking us to sit an old 60s paper – it was way harder than the 80′s ones we were used to.

      and my link was pretty scientific – 30 of our brightest kids couldn’t cope with old o-levels after 4 weeks prep. simple as that.

      if senior examiners and teachers (like myself), often with decades worth of experience, confirm exams are getting easier I’m not sure this can dismissed.

      ps my examiner colleagues are quite open about the fact that iGCSEs are more demanding- its part of their selling point.


  14. “and my link was pretty scientific – 30 of our brightest kids couldn’t cope with old o-levels after 4 weeks prep. simple as that.”

    So what? That doesn’t say anything about difficulty, of itself. Content has changed too, and unless you’re saying that bright children should be able to do an O Level ab initio in four weeks (in which case, what were schools doing spending five years delivering eight of them?) then a perfectly reputable alternative hypothesis is that the content was different. Another perfectly reputable hypothesis is that those thirty children realised that the outcome of the experiment was of no value to them, and therefore didn’t put in the effort they did for their GCSEs. I hope you’re not a science teacher if this is your definition of science.

    “and your final assertion is untrue- I’m quite sure the 80s o-levels that i took were easier than those in the 60′s.”

    Well, with evidence like that, why bother doing any more research? My father’s opinion was that the HNC material he taught in the 1980s was far in advance of the content of his own degree int he 1950s: we can all trot out anecdote until the cows come home.


  15. i suppose we can, and then one can consider the weight of anecdotes in consensus…. better than nothing no?

    in the programme I alluded to the students appeared very motivated and were taught a subsection of the curricula that they were then examined on.

    the students opinion was that the material was very much more demanding.

    whilst its difficult to the reverse the dynamic (I cannot unlearn my maths for example and do a 2011 gcse) you can get todays kids and say here is an 1975 o- level chemistry paper and say easier or harder?

    You can get questions that are on identical material too- in science and maths a lot of material now is the same as in the 50s.

    you can dismiss if you want but i dont think your stance is that persuasive.

    every examiner or moderator or teacher (with experience) that i have ever known have said exams have got easier over the past few decades.

    i trust their judgement.

    if you have experts that have told you otherwise then fair enough- no doubt we form our opinions on the evidence we have met during our careers.


  16. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2071902/GCSE-exams-Edexcels-Steph-Warren-suspended-shes-caught-boasting-hidden-camera.html

    I’m gonna suggest exams are indeed getting a tad easier.



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