Why falling exam results are not entirely a bad thing

A fall in GCSE grades.

Today marked the first fall in the percentage of GCSE students gaining a “C” grade or above since the qualification was originally introduced. 69.4 per cent of papers were awarded at least a “C” grade compared to a figure of 69.8 per cent last year.

Given that OFQUAL (the independent exams regulator) has recently stated that exam boards must put an end to “grade inflation”, it is unsurprising that we have not been met with the customary cheery August headlines. Whilst the new system of “comparable outcomes” was expected to see results stagnate for the foreseeable future, a fall in exam performance of this magnitude was not expected.

The reforms come in response to claims that continued improvements in exam performance are the result of the “dumbing down of exams”. Consequently, employers and universities are gradually losing faith in the credibility of GCSE and A-level qualifications. Last week, recruitment group Adecco published figures stating that 65 per cent of employers considered that A-levels did not provide adequate preparation for employment.  

Some sceptics point to the fact that schools are free to choose which exam boards their students use. These for-profit organisations such as OCR and Edexcel charge a fee per pupil. As a result, in a damaging “race to the bottom”, it is in the best interests of exam boards to offer an attractive curriculum with the easiest exams possible.

Previously, OFQUAL operated a system of “comparable performance” or “criterion referencing” in which exam papers were marked in accordance to “the knowledge, skills and understanding that students must show in the exam”. In other words, if exactly the same cohort sat two different exams, but one exam was harder than the other, “comparable performance” implies that those sitting the harder paper would be unfairly disadvantaged. In the case where the introduction of a new syllabus meant that teachers were less experienced at teaching the new exam format, grade boundaries could be adjusted. In spite of this, as years passed by and teachers became more accustomed to this new syllabus, we saw repeated improvements in national exam performance.

Critics suggest that the successive increase in pass rates witnessed over the last 27 years has largely been as a result of this “grade inflation”. Accordingly, this improvement in exam scores does not represent a “real” improvement in performance. In a recent study by Cambridge Assessment, 87 per cent of lecturers declared that “too much teaching to the test” was a significant factor in undergraduates being underprepared for study at university.

In an attempt to stem this perceived grade inflation, OFQUAL has introduced a “comparable outcomes” system where the percentage of students obtaining each grade will largely remain the same. Exam boards are now required to justify any increases in national exam performance with evidence that the cohort in question are more “able” than those in previous years. In the case of verifying the A-level grade distribution in a particular year, that cohort’s GCSE grade distribution will be used as a reference point. For GCSE’s the benchmark is KS2 performance.

The justification behind this is that exam results should remain constant across time, as there is no definitive evidence that the base “ability” of students, which is what employers and universities are really interested in, changes year-on-year:

“You would expect outcomes to remain consistent year to year unless there are changes in terms of the cohort or the syllabuses, or in terms of other extraneous factors”, said Simon Lebus of Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR exam board.”

In 2010 OFQUAL prioritized “comparable outcomes” over “comparable performance”. The same increases in the percentage of students obtaining “A” grades was not seen.

This is an interesting statement of intent from OFQUAL as it raises questions over the very nature of exam grades. By definition, with “norm-referencing”, pass rates will always be the same. According to these reforms, if all the teachers in the country were to put in double the amount of work and all the students in the country knew the syllabus material twice as well, exam results would not change. The government can no longer use results to measure standards in education. By preventing grade inflation and restoring the credibility of academic qualifications, Gove is removing a potential weapon from his political armoury.

The reforms have also been met with opposition from students and teachers, due to the fact that some GCSE papers, particularly in English, which would have received a “C” under the old regime, would now be awarded a “D”. Some exam boards have unexpectedly increased this grade boundary by over 10 marks from last year.

If the ideals of comparable outcomes are to be upheld, it should work in both directions. Accordingly, the fall in the percentage of A*-C grades in English (1.5 per cent), English Literature (2.1 per cent) and Science (2.2 per cent) are somewhat perplexing. The Joint Council for Qualifications points to the “more demanding standard” of exams that have recently been requested in Whitehall.
A reversal of previous grade inflation is a necessary evil, but Gove has raised suspicions over the manner in which corrective action has been carried out. Earlier this academic year, the “floor standard”- the minimum percentage of A*-C’s required for a school to be judged as not “underperforming”- was raised from 35 per cent to 40 per cent. Schools failing to meet this criterion are put under increased pressure to convert to academies. Consistent underperformance enables the government to make conversion mandatory. Today’s decline will see many schools fail this metric and the government intends to raise this figure to 50 per cent in the future. Yet, as mentioned earlier, comparable outcomes invalidates the use of exam results as a benchmark.

Some may say that OFQUAL are “fiddling” results and not awarding grades solely on the basis of merit. Indeed, the unexpected manner in which the new standards have been imposed will leave thousands of students, teachers and parents disappointed. In spite of this, adjusting grade distributions is entirely necessary to preserve the integrity of standardized testing.

Exam results are intended to signal your relative ability and not absolute ability. An “A” grade in maths is meaningless by itself. Employers don’t understand the meaning of an “A” grade without others obtaining “B” grades, “C” grades etc. Similarly, if so many students are gaining “A” grades such that employers and university admission staff lose faith in the entire system, then an “A” is equally as meaningless. Irrespective of systematic improvements in standards, the credibility of the grading system is undermined if everyone achieves top marks.

“Comparable outcomes” does not prevent students and teachers from being recognized and rewarded for hard work. It does, however, remove the wholesale improvement in exam performance that results from teachers becoming more familiar with syllabus material- an irrelevance where students are judged relative to one another.

Today, there has been a lack of transparency in the grading of papers, but falling exam results are not unambiguously a bad thing. What the reforms do signify is that improving standards are a zero-sum game. It is a statistical law that, for one school to outperform, another must underperform, therefore Gove should think twice before threatening the latter.  

Students getting their GCSE results. Photograph: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser