Maybe GCSE grades are falling because standards really are slipping

When just a third of school leavers can write an acceptable CV, then maybe GCSEs need an overhaul.

I feel sorry for the young people getting exam results today – and not only those who haven’t got the grades they feel they deserve. After years of hearing that exams are getting easier, they have the dubious honour of being the first group of students since GCSEs were introduced, 24 years ago, to have done worse than the previous year.

One of the biggest drops is in English, with those achieving at least a C down to 63.9 per cent from 65.4 per cent last year. Some schools are reporting students being marked down a whole grade compared to results predicted by teachers. While it will take days, and maybe even weeks, to find out why this has happened, some head teachers say students have been deliberately penalised to curb grade inflation – a claim that has so far been denied by exam boards.

I used to teach English, so I know how disappointing this is for young people – and their teachers – many of whom have undoubtedly worked hard in the run up to the exams. But as an employer and small business owner, I can’t help wondering if there is more to this than "harsh marking."

Having recently advertised for an apprentice, I’ve been shocked by the standard of some of the applications, many of which have been littered with spelling mistakes, colloquialisms, text speak (including several using the lower case "i" throughout) and errors in punctuation and grammar.

What is even more surprising is that these are not underachieving students: the majority have grade C or above in English and most have Gove’s EBacc (awarded to students who achieve 5 A* – C in English, maths, science, a language and a humanities subject). Yet on the basis of their application form, just 30 per cent appear to have good enough writing skills. This will be the second time I’ve recruited an apprentice and I saw a very similar trend the first time round.

I’m keen to give a young person the opportunity to train on-the-job, and I'm definitely not looking for the finished article (a solid writer with a bit of potential will suit me fine) but I’m a business owner, not a charity. I can't take someone on, in a paid role, if they can’t send out an email or post up some web copy without mistakes in it. At the very least, I need a young person who cares about getting it right and pays attention to detail.

My experiences mirror those regularly voiced by employer bodies who say, year after year, that school leavers don't have the skills they need.

Research published yesterday by the Federation of Small Businesses found that eight out of 10 businesses don’t believe school leavers are ready for work and say more should be done to help prepare them for employment.

It echoes the findings of a recent report carried out by the CBI and Pearson Education and Skills, which found that around a third of employers are dissatisfied with school and college leavers’ basic skills – the same number as a decade ago – with 42 per cent reporting that they have had to provide remedial training for this group of young people.

Teaching union leaders are already calling for an investigation into this year’s English exams – and quite rightly so. If it goes ahead, I think many employers – and teachers too – would welcome the opportunity of a review of the curriculum and whether it is fit for purpose.

No school or teacher wants to send young people out into the world without the functional skills they need, but most are under huge pressure to hit targets and score well in the league tables.

Earlier this year, the CBI – which is currently carrying out a long term review of the school system and how it is preparing young people for work – called for the scrapping of GCSEs, saying the pressure for schools to effectively "teach to the test" at 16 means young people are leaving education without the skills they need for the workplace.

Despite the disappointments, I think this is an opportunity to ask some serious questions about the GCSE curriculum. Are the skills tested a reflection of a young person's ability to pass an exam or simply of how well they do at passing exams? And if employers can't rely on GCSEs to "benchmark" young peoples' skills and abilities, what exactly is the point of doing them?

A student's GCSE results. Photograph: Getty Images

Janet Murray is an education journalist, writing mainly for the Guardian.

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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle