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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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