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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The Brexit select committee walkout is an ominous sign of things to come

Leavers walked out of a meeting of Hilary Benn's "gloomy" committee yesterday. Their inability to accept criticism could have disastrous consequences

“Hilary Benn isn’t managing a select committee. He’s managing an ecosystem.” That was the stark verdict of one member of the Commons' Brexit committee on its fitness for purpose yesterday. If its meeting on the eve of Article 50 is anything to go by, then Benn’s fragile biome might already be damaged beyond repair.

Unhappy with the content of its “gloomy” provisional 155-page report into the government’s Brexit white paper, leavers on the committee walked out of its meeting yesterday. The committee is a necessarily unwieldy creation and it would probably be unreasonable to expect it to agree unanimously on anything: it has 21 members where others have 11, so as to adequately represent Leavers, Remainers and the nations.

Disagreements are one thing. Debate and scrutiny, after all, are why select committees exist. But the Brexiteers’ ceremonial exodus augurs terribly for the already grim-looking trajectory of the negotiations to come. “As I understand it, they don’t like analysing the evidence that they have,” another pro-Remain member of the committee told me.

Therein lies the fundamental weakness of the Brexiteers’ position: they cannot change the evidence. As was the case with the 70 MPs who wrote to Lord Hall last week to accuse the BBC of anti-Brexit bias, they assume a pernicious selectivity on the part of Remainers and their approach to the inconvenient facts at hand. None exists.

On the contrary, there is a sense of resignation among some Remainers on the Brexit committee that their reports will turn out to be pretty weak beer as a consequence of the accommodations made by Benn to their Eurosceptic colleagues. Some grumble that high-profile Brexiteers lack detailed understanding of the grittier issues at play – such as the Good Friday Agreement – and only value the committee insofar as it gives them the opportunity to grandstand to big audiences.

The Tory awkward squad’s inability to accept anything less than the studied neutrality that plagued the Brexit discourse in the run-up to the referendum – or, indeed, any critical analysis whatsoever – could yet make an already inauspicious scenario unsalvageable. If they cannot accept even a watered-down assessment of the risks ahead, then what happens when those risks are made real? Will they ever accept the possibility that it could be reality, and not the Remain heretics, doing Britain down? How bad will things have to get before saving face isn’t their primary imperative?

Yesterday's pantomime exit might have been, as one committee member told me, “hysterically funny”. What’s less amusing is that these are the only people the prime minister deigns to listen to.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.