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.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.