Fisking the Mail on Sunday's "Gove-Levels" story

Adam Creen uncovers the inaccuracies in the paper's big education scoop.

Inaccuracies in the Mail On Sunday's story from 16th September 2012:
 
The new exams, dubbed "Gove-levels", follow claims that GCSEs, which replaced O-levels in 1986, are too easy. Under Mr Gove’s shake-up, the current system whereby nearly three in ten pupils get A or A* grades will go. Instead as few as one in ten will get the top mark, Grade 1.
 
They replaced O-levels in 1988, when they were first examined. Inaccurate grading comparison - at present as few as 1 in 12 get the top grade A* in some subjects. And you cannot compare the new "Grade 1" with the top two grades under the old system.
 
Marks will depend on a traditional ‘all or nothing’ three-hour exam at the end of the two-year course, rather than the current system in which up to half the grading is based on modules and continual assessment, followed by a 90-minute exam at the end.
 
Currently the final grading must be a minimum of 40 per cent, not 50 per cent. It's called controlled assessment, and the exams may be two lots of 1h45m, as they are in Maths, so three and a half hours not 90 minutes. Anyway, in Maths this would have to be split in two to have calculator and non-calculator, as present. 
 
Pupils will no longer be able to bump up their grades with endless re-sits of each exam module. In future they will have to re-sit the entire exam, which is expected to deter most.
 
In two years there have been at most three resit opportunities, and the vast majority of students would do no resits, or one retake of an early module. What will the new re-sit rules deter most students from? Not doing any work? This sentence makes no sense.
 
There will be more complex algebra questions in maths exams and a return to essays in English literature exams instead of trendy GCSE ‘bite sized’ answers.
 
Newsflash: current Higher Maths papers contain 40 per cent algebra questions, including complex questions. So more than 40 per cent algebra? Something's gotta give - students' skills in data handling are already being knocked by the lack of coverage in the iGCSE, leading to problems in the A Level statistics modules.
 
Catch up: The new exams are more rigorous and top grades will only go to the brightest children in an attempt to help English schools catch up with other countries as we trail in school standards
 
Top grades currently only go to the "brightest children". We do not trail in school standards. See Warwick Mansell's article about PISA and TIMSS and how students are not doing as badly as Gove would suggest.
 
And in a controversial move designed to counter claims that GCSEs are far too easy for bright pupils, questions in the new exam will be graded, starting with easy questions and building up to difficult questions which will stretch the cleverest pupils. It means that less able pupils may be unable to complete the paper. But Mr Gove will argue it is vital to boost standards.
 
This is already the case, particularly in Mathematics GCSEs, both Higher and Foundation. Is this a serious case for a single exam covering seven levels of ability at once?
 
In addition, the new exams will be run by a single exam board following complaints that competition between rival boards is driving down standards.
 
This makes no difference as the government has always forced exam boards to offer papers covering exactly the same syllabus, and only approving papers that meet standards. No "driving down" has occurred. Competition is lauded in many other areas of government.
 
Board officials have been accused of boasting how easy their exams are, and giving tips to teachers on the content of papers. Ministers said the current rules had created a ‘race to the bottom’ in standards.
 
Some board officials made inexcusable comments. In Maths no one has ever been given "tips" because we know the whole syllabus is covered by the papers anyway. Everything is taught, everything is tested.
 
According to a 2010 OECD study of 15-year-olds, the UK fell from 17th to 25th for reading, 24th to 28th for maths and 14th to 16th in science over a three-year period.
 
And in the TIMSS, referred to in Warwick Mansell's article:
 
TIMSS tests are given in maths and science, to 10- and 14-year-olds. Between 1995 and the last tests in 2007, England’s primary maths performance improved by a greater margin than that of any of the other 15 nations which had pupils taking tests in the two years, including Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

Its score went from below the international average to comfortably above it in that time, while its ranking improved from 12th out of 16 countries in 1995 to 7th out of 36 in 2007.

The other tests in the last round of TIMSS also brought good news. In secondary maths, England was the joint third most improved of 20 countries over the 1995-2007 period, rising from 11th out of 20 to 7th out of 49 in the rankings.
 

In science – which is traditionally England’s strongest subject in international tests – the country was seventh most improved out of 16 in primary (its ranking moving from 6th out of 20 countries in 1995 to 7th out of 36 in 2007) and fifth most improved out of 19 in secondary (its ranking improving from seventh to fifth between these two years, even though the number of countries taking part increased from 19 to 49). In these science tests in 2007, English pupils finished ahead of, in primary, countries including the United States, Germany, Australia and Sweden; and in secondary, ahead of these countries plus Russia, Hong Kong and Norway.
 

HOW THE NEW EXAM WILL WORK [Daily Mail "fact" box]

 
NOW Tens of thousands of pupils can bump up grades by re-sitting parts of the GCSE exams until they get a pass.
IN FUTURE Partial resits will end. Pupils will be forced to resit the entire exam.                                              
Already the case.

NOW Final exam can be as short as 90 minutes.                                            
IN FUTURE Three-hour exams.                                                        

Already the case.
 

NOW Maths exams have little algebra, English exams include ‘bite sized’ replies and rigorous English-to-foreign-language translations are rare.

IN FUTURE More algebra in maths exams, more full length essays in English and a return to full English-to-foreign-language translation tests.
Not true. Already the case.

NOW Up to 50 per cent of exams are studied via modules and continual assessment.
IN FUTURE Replaced by one exam at end of two-year course.
 
Already the case. EDIT: Apologies, I had got in a bit of a rut by this stage. This is of course a major change for many subjects, but not Maths.
NOW Technically, everyone who gets a grade from A to G grade is deemed to have achieved  a ‘pass’.
IN FUTURE New 1 to 6 pass grade, 7 onwards will be fail.
1 to 6 would be equivalent to A* A B C D E. So only F or G would be a fail.
NOW 22 per cent get A or A* grade. Around seven per cent of all candidates gain an A*.
IN FUTURE As few as five per cent may get Grade 1.
At the top of the article, it said 1 in 10 get the top grade, not 5 per cent. Basic maths. So may be easier to get a top grade than at present.
 
This post first appeared on Adam Creen's blog here, and is reproduced here with his permission. You can find him on Twitter as @adamcreen
Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.