A fall in GCSE results is not a lowering of standards, and vice versa

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February 3, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

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Sometimes, particularly with an interviewer as clever as Andrew Marr, you have to wonder if journalists are being deliberately stupid. Sunday morning, interviewing Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, Marr pursued an angle that started out as rightly questioning some figures but ended up just seeming deliberately obtuse at best.

He was asking Morgan about the fact that quite a few schools have been downgraded by Ofsted, and have fallen down the GCSE results tables under a new system of assessment where the Government have raised the bar for success. Morgan explained that new system for GCSEs as, for instance, only accepting the results of a pupil’s first attempt at a GCSE module and not including the results of some vocational qualifications that the Government are concerned are not valued by universities, but students are entered for as good results are easier to obtain.

Having done that, the results last summer were below what they had been. As they should be, because schools have to adjust to the new system, and, as if have said before, if you include retakes in league tables, you are encouraging pupils to learn that there is always a second chance in life, which, in reality there isn’t. That doesn’t stop schools from entering pupils for retakes, if they feel that is in the best interests of the pupil in terms of achieving better results, and of entering pupils in vocational qualifications that they want to study or are best for them, but those results are not going to be credited anymore in league tables. One could argue that the league tables measure academic achievement, and so the changes in what they measure make sense.

The Labour Party had already aided Marr’s response by pointing out that “GCSE results are down”. But this of course totally misses the point that of you raise the bar in terms of standards, then in the short term schools will fall below the bar, but then, because we all know that what gets measured gets managed, they will be incentivised to improve those standards.

Morgan made this point a few times, but Marr wasn’t having any of it. He said “You’ve changed the system of grading of schools, for whatever reasons, and because of that schools are being downgraded. Surely that means schools standards are falling, it’s as simple as that.”

Well no, it isn’t, and Marr knows that. It is not difficult to raise ‘results’, simply by lowering the bar students have to reach to achieve those results. When I took my GCSEs, for instance, to get an A you needed 72% in many subjects, and more than 50% to get a C. When I started teaching GCSE in 2006, after nine years of New Labour, you needed 63% for an A in the subjects I taught, and 72% got you an A*. To get a C required 44%. The league tables, of course, recorded a rise in results. Was that a rise in standards? What do you think?

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