The GCSE English Farrago

October 3, 2012

I think it is about time I returned to the issue of the controversy around GCSE English exams, as it has never gone away. My last blogpost was originally the introduction to this one, so do read that first if you haven’t already.  Thanks to those who have informed my thinking on this issue, particularly one English teacher (you know who you are) who inspired both the title of this piece and a proportion of the analysis.

As I explained last time, in order for exams to work over time they need to be able to maintain a certain constant level of difficulty. Because this, not any other issue, is the key to functioning exams. I have been dismissive of most of the complaints about the GCSE English exam results (but not complaints about the exams themselves). Most arguments in favour of re-marking have either implied that exams should be allowed to become easier, or attempted to avoid the issue by dismissing the clear evidence that they have, or would do so if more grade Cs were granted. However, I think it is now worth returning to this topic and to consider what, if any, valid complaints do exist about the English GCSE grades.

Firstly, it is probably worth noting that a lot of the debate is still in the realm of the absurd. Reports have appeared in the media that there will be a legal case challenging the exam results on the grounds of a breach of “the cardinal principle of good administration that all persons who are in a similar position should be treated similarly”; a principle that is so wonderfully vague and abstract that it must be breached continually in every walk of life. However, if that was not absurd enough, then the following contribution from Pat Glass MP in the House of Commons Education Committee needs to be noted for being even more ridiculous:

“There is substantial evidence of the difference in life chances between children who get 5 A to Cs and those who don’t, and those who get Cs and Ds. And it isn’t just about their academic qualifications; it is about children who get 5 A to Cs are less likely to get divorced; are less likely to get cancer, are less likely to end up in prison or homeless, and a whole range of other things, So this about what’s going to happen to these young people for the rest of their lives. Given that… are you not prepared to look again at the issue of rebanding, given the long-term impact on children’s lives?”

Yes, that’s right, by only giving out the second highest number of grade Cs and above in history, those heartless exam boards are giving people cancer, making them homeless and destroying their marriages. The bastards.

Secondly, I would like to point out that I am not a knee-jerk defender of OFQUAL or the examboards. I am quite prepared to entertain sensible complaints. Assuming the sort of nonsense I described above isn’t to be taken seriously, there is still the question of whether an injustice could, possibly, have been committed by holding the line on grade inflation. Hearing the ridiculous arguments from those who have been kicking up a fuss, then it would be hard to see how. But, I don’t actually want to rule this out. I do see one possibility for a genuine injustice to have taken place. If those who sat the written exam paper in January, and submitted in June, did get marked too generously in January, then the possibility exists that the higher boundaries in June did involve some kind of “clawback” to bring the results back into line with expectations. However, this involves a minority of the exams of a minority of students, and, depending on the degree of generosity in the January marks, there is no reason to assume that such a “clawback” did take place. If it did, then I would normally assume that the groups lobbying for regrading would have established this by now and it would be the centre of their case. However, perhaps this is assuming too much about the competence of those involved. One of the loudest voices about the GCSE English grades, Geoff Barton, had this to say about his understanding of the numbers:

“I’m merely a humble English teacher, and it took me five attempts to get my O-level Maths, so I can’t do the fancy statistical pyrotechnics that others can.”

With people like this leading the charge, it is entirely possible that there could be a genuine injustice, hidden in the bogus claims, which has been missed.  If so, I won’t have a problem criticising OFQUAL and the exam boards.

Finally, I wish to revisit the issue of the quality of the exams. I explained here that I thought their structure would have led to inevitable manipulation and even cheating. I had also explained in an earlier blogpost (before the results came out) that some of the content was extremely dubious. Since then I have come to appreciate just how badly designed the course was, and how some of the problems that have arisen over grades were inevitable.

The most noticeable feature of the new GCSE English “suite” of exams was the division of the exams to provide a choice of options for entry. Students could either do an English GCSE that was to be sat on its own, or an English language GCSE to be sat alongside English Literature GCSE. I talked last time about the need for maintaining the level of difficulty between tiers and between exam boards. By splitting the options even further, into a double or single course, there was no single type of qualification that was sat by everybody. It was almost certain that a different profile of students would take the different options (typically the less able taking the English exam, the more able taking the English language exam) and combined with the drastically different nature of the courses, maintaining consistency between the options would have become an incredible challenge, particularly for those taking the units early. It has now been confirmed from the communications between exam boards and OFQUAL (see pages 105-107 here) that taking account of the differences between the two types of exam was a problem for the exam boards in England.

However, these difficulties in England pale when compared with the problem of maintaining consistency between England and Wales. Wales rejected the new English exam, ensuring that the Welsh entrants for English language would have had a completely different ability profile to the English entrants. Additionally, as Key Stage 2 tests were abolished in Wales, it would have been impossible for exam boards to judge how different the Welsh cohort was by using Key Stage 2 results. The main Welsh exam board WJEC was left with very little to go on in making its judgements. When their English language results were high for England and low for Wales, they would have been completely trapped, with no choice but to produce results that were unacceptable to one country or another, and no good evidence to determine which had the better case. No wonder we ended up with the ludicrous situation of the Welsh government stepping in to reset results for WJEC, creating a different standard each side of the border. This is an astonishing mess, where there is simply no good evidence to determine whether any action taken, by the exam board, or by the Welsh government, was right or wrong.

My biggest question, and it is one I can’t answer, is: how often have exams been in this much of a mess? There have been controversies before. However, in the past exam boards always had the option of inflating the grades so that, even if there was unfairness, nobody much was actually dissatisfied by the resulting grades. With grade inflation ending, the shambolic nature of the examination system cannot be hidden. That is the real legacy here, and firm action taken to deal with the quality of the exams and the marking, will be the best possible conclusion to this situation.


  1. The only time I remember a large cock up like this was when the KS3 tests were not marked on time and university students, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, were employed to try and get them back to schools. There have been some issues with grade boundaries before ( AQA Science coursework had some issues a few years ago) but they were minor things compared to this.

    Unfortunately, with education devolved to Wales and Northern Ireland, we now have three regulators, with the Welsh regulator also being a politician, for one exam. The EBCs may help in England but, by not switching all subjects at the same time, we will continue to have a mismatch in qualifications.

  2. This is well-put, and I agree with your willingness to suspect Ofqual should sufficient evidence be found to do so.

    One other thing that I note English teachers have not brought up to the debating table (and my apologies if you have done so in a previous post) is the issue of choice of texts and parity in studying. It is extremely difficult to establish any kind of level playing field in an English exam (and judging by the absurd marking of AS/A2 exams I have noted this is even worse at A-level) because of the variations over boards, texts, teaching styles, coursework choices etc etc. I offer the following:

    Whilst doing my own GCSEs (c 1997) I had to do a piece of coursework on Much Ado. I was taught it, given a title, went away, wrote it.

    Whilst training to be a teacher, I witnessed a (top) English set complete their coursework on Macbeth by writing paragraphs one after the other in a lesson. The subject matter of each paragraph was set by the teacher.

    Under the AQA syllabus we followed at the school I worked in, students wrote one essay on one Shakespeare play as their coursework. We taught that in full. Other schools I know showed the video and did the odd scene, then structured the essay for the students to copy in their own words.

    I now tutor privately (extended mat leave). Under the new AQA spec, the Year 10 students I tutor read the first Act of Macbeth, watched the video, read four war poems (three WW1 and Light Brigade) and then wrote an entirely specious essay in which Shakespeare figured reasonably briefly.

    Even without recognising the huge variation in what English teachers do across the country, the fact that in 2010 students had to write one essay entirely on a play by Shakespeare and that now they do not, is surely proof that the requirements of the exam are not comparable year on year.

    My view is I think similar to yours from a few posts ago – that this has actually exposed the flaws in English teaching as much as it has in English examining. Increasingly I have watched literature and literary art slip away from the specifications and be replaced by an ever more dogmatic approach in which every question is a variation on ‘how does the writer do X’. The fact that (some, not all) staff are cross when their own box-ticking approach has failed to deliver results is not surprising, but it is a clear example of how the subject has been failed by its examiners and many of its teachers in the last few years.

  3. If you haven’t read it, HMC’s recently published report on this is well worth reading because it exposes the untrustworthiness of the entire system, not just English, over a decade and more.

    My own view is that dealing with exams, however radically, is simply treating the symptoms. The disease is an deeply politicised profession that can’t distinguish effectively between educational and political goals.

  4. That HMC report clearly sums up the heartache and frustration I feel year on year. I do think teaching unions should feel ashamed that they have left it to HMC to fight this while they try to score political points over the English GCSE.
    I would only add to the HmC report from my experience as a marker that it is not necessarily poor markers (although there is that) often it is poor standardisation, now online which is ruinous for humanities subjects and poor mark schemes. I am sure that our skills emphasis markscheme for A 2 politics which asks the examiner to give four separate marks for each essay distorts the marks, leading to unpredictable outcomes. It seems that to effectively mark ‘skills’ quite specific grade descriptors are necessary that over emphasise the importance of certain aspects of essay technique. In practice it can lead to stark injustices on essays that are ostensibly very strong. It seems that the more one tries to define certain skills on a markscheme the more mechanistic the examiner is required to be to apply that mark scheme. When this is combined with the fact that there has been no face to face meeting to properly chew over the valididty of different responses the outcome is high unpredictability in marks year on year. It is no coincidence in my mind that things have got even worse with the release of the new A levels from 2007.
    Just as an aside using my Politics A2 markscheme you are meant to mark separately: knowledge, analysis, synopticity(analysing difference) and coherence. It’s a dogs dinner and when applied by someone that doesn’t know the subject matter it leads to the most bizarre injustices.

  5. I rather think you have missed the profound implications of Pat Glass’s inspired suggestion Old Andrew.

    Why not give EVERYONE a grade C!

    Then we would have CURED cancer!

    I nominate Pat for a Nobel Prize….

  6. Cancer remains overwhelmingly a disease of old age. Old people live longer (no sh!t Sherlock!) and people with degrees and thus good jobs tend to live longer. To continue to fiddle the C grades is to make people DIE. God as if I’m not already at enough risk, Glass. Even though I had to get my 1976 Biology A-level re-marked and upgraded. Bet that was your fault too, halfabrain. (No disrespect)

    • Pat Glass seems not to get the concept of correlation vs causality. She probably does have a justifiable complaint against the education system, in that she has never been taught logic. How do these people become our legislators…..

  7. Here’s something I wrote on the topic. How to cheat at GCSE:


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