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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After the leadership battle, immigration is Labour's new dividing line

Some MPs are making a progressive case for freedom of movement controls. 

After three brutal months of infighting, culminating in another sweeping victory for Jeremy Corbyn, the buzzword at the Labour party conference is unity. But while Corbyn’s opponents may have resigned themselves at least temporarily to their leader, a new fissure is opening up.

Considering it was sparked by Brexit, the Labour leadership contest included surprisingly little debate about freedom of movement. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Corbyn declared he was “not afraid to talk about immigration”.  Owen Smith, his rival, referred to the “progressive case against freedom of movement”. But ultimately, the contest embodied a clash between the will of the membership and the parliamentary Labour party. 

Now, though, the question can no longer be dodged. What position should Labour take on freedom of movement? And is it time for a fundamental shift on immigration?

Labour’s 2015 pledge to “control immigration” was widely derided by its own party activists – not least when it appeared on a gift shop mug. Apart from making a rather authoritarian present, one of the flaws in this promise was, at the time, that the only way of really controlling immigration would be to leave the EU. 

But an increasingly vocal group of MPs are arguing that everything has changed. Heavyweights from the Miliband era are now, from the back benches, trying to define limits to freedom of movement and immigration. Chief among them are Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna. 

Reeves makes her case from an economic perspective. She argues that freedom of movement from the EU has depressed wages (the cause and effect is disputed). At a Resolution Foundation event during Labour conference, she recalled visiting a factory in her constituency where workers complained the jobs went to foreigners. 

Umunna, on the other hand, argues unease with immigration has a cultural element as well. He has said that immigrants need to stop leading “parallel lives”. At the Resolution event, he declared of Brexit: “This isn’t all about economic equality – it is about identity politics.” Umunna's tough talk on integration may coincide with his bid to chair the Home Office select committee, but his observations about the underlying distrust of immigrants rings true. 

How Labour copes with freedom of movement depends on which view prevails. It is possible to imagine the party coming up with an answer to the freedom of movement question that involves Corbynite economic themes, such as protecting wages, labour rights and restrictions on agency recruitment. Lisa Nandy, another speaker at the Resolution event, rallied the audience with a story of workers on low wages standing “in solidarity side by side” with migrant workers. It would be a distinctly left-wing argument that critiques the Government’s tolerance of zero-hours contracts and other precarious employment practices. 

But if, as Umunna suggests, Brexit is also an articulation of a deeper anti-immigrant feeling, Labour is entering more dangerous territory. On a tactical level, it is hard to see how the party can beat the May Government when it comes to social conservatism. It undermines any attempt to broker a "soft Brexit", which many of Labour's members, who voted Remain, will want. 

And then there's the prospect of the party most closely associated with ethnic minorities condoning xenophobia. Labour activists point out that some of the Brexit backlash is plain old racism. Speaking at a Momentum rally during the leadership contest, Diane Abbott, the shadow health secretary and one of Corbyn’s closest allies, declared: "Anyone who tells you maybe you have to do something about these Eastern Europeans, it's not about skin colour, what we've seen since the Brexit vote gives lie to that. 

“If you give ground to anti-immigrant politics, it will sweep away all of us. And we cannot give ground to that stuff. You cannot as a Labour movement take a position that one part of the working class is a problem of another section of the working class."

More pragmatic MPs too, still remember the ill-fated immigration mug. They see the new “tough on immigration” line as an uneasy alliance between working-class MPs on the Labour right, and a group of middle-class metropolitans who have spotted a gap in the market and jumped on it. Should this second attempt, Labour MPs will have achieved nothing except alienating their activist base. 

Ultimately, the initiative lies with Corbyn. If he can set out a radical agenda for protecting workers’ rights, he may be able to bring the party with him. But if this fails to shift opinion polls, immigration could be the next issue to disunite the party.