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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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

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

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood