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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The EU-Turkey refugee deal only succeeded in one thing

It swept the humanitarian crisis under the carpet.

The Greek island of Chios is a picturesque holiday resort, and home to some 50,000 Greek residents. The occasional cruise boat moors alongside the fishing boats which populate the main harbour of the island. Tourism and fisheries make up the majority of the island’s economy.  A 7km stretch of sea separates Chios from Turkey. It is so close that you can look across the water and see the lights come on in houses in Çeşme as night falls. This beautiful island is also one of the scene of an unfolding and largely untold humanitarian disaster. It is evidence that the EU-Turkey deal in March, intended to stem the flow of refugees, has failed. 

Chios is home to more than 3,000 asylum seekers. Refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, make the perilous crossing from Turkey every day. Smugglers launch tiny rubber boats in the middle of the night, over capacity to a dangerous level, to attempt the crossing. One Syrian boy told us that the smuggler on the boat counted down from 10 to calculate when the best time was to purposefully puncture the side of the boat in order to escape the Turkish coastguard, but be rescued from drowning by the Greeks.

As a result of these cavalier strategies, this scenic stretch of water has become the grave of thousands. Those who are rescued by the Turkish authorities rather than Greece are often detained. Such high stakes has not deterred the refugees - one family we knew of had tried 17 times to get to Chios from Turkey. 

The main camp on Chios, "Vial", is at the end of a dusty track and is housed in a disused aluminium factory surrounded by barbed wire. G4S, the private security firm, guards the entrance to the European Asylum Support Office compound. It looks more like a prison than a place of refuge. The majority of the refugees live in metal containers. The camp was constructed to hold 1,100 and now holds approximately twice as many.

Most of the migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal have been moved to the mainland, nominally in the hope of relocation elsewhere in Europe. More recent arrivals on Chios (and those simply left behind) have been subject to the hastily-adopted Greek Law 4375/2015, which allows for the lengthy detention of asylum seekers on arrival.

While camps on other Greek islands operate as de facto prisons, on Chios, the police allow refugees to travel around (but not leave) the island. A bus service is provided between Vial and the island’s main city, to allow those housed in unofficial camps to come to Vial for appointments. This is a tacit acknowledgement that makeshift camps are needed for those who cannot be accommodated in Vial’s limited facilities. Thus, the entire island is turned into an open prison camp, with asylum seekers unable to leave until their claims are determined, a process taking upwards of six months. During that time refugees, many of whom have fled from unimaginable horror, are left in an endless waiting game.

In May 2016, a Human Rights Watch report called the refugee “hotspots” on the Greek islands, such as Vial, “unsanitary and unsafe” . By September, when we arrived, the situation had not improved. The conditions in the camps around Chios were shocking. Violence was a daily event - both between asylum seekers and from the frustrated local population. Children, at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, would simply disappear. We would spend hours searching the camps, armed with lists of unaccompanied minors, asking everyone we saw if they had seen this or that child. Some had already become desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of human traffickers, in order to escape from the very place where they initially sought sanctuary. Shortly after we left Chios we heard that seven people had suffocated to death in a fridge trying to reach the mainland. Isis were known to be recruiting in the camps. 

Unaccompanied children were left to live together in overcrowded containers, often without enough beds. They would take it in turns to stay awake on guard. Food was often inedible. Access to medical treatment was limited. In Vial, the medical facilities were located inside the disused aluminium factory. To be able to speak to a doctor, you first had to get the permission of the police officers manning the entrance gate. People were sometimes left waiting there for days in the baking heat of summer.

It is no surprise that most of the refugees we met were self-harming, severely depressed and suicidal. It is also no exaggeration to say that everyone we interviewed said they would rather be dead than live in this limbo on Chios. Many of the refugees who arrive in Greece are already seriously traumatised. Large numbers of them are victims of torture, or bereaved or wounded by the Syrian war. Almost all have been forced to flee their homelands because of incomprehensible suffering. The reception they receive in Europe only reinforces their trauma. “I didn’t expect Europe to be like this," a Kurdish Syrian refugee aged 18 told us. His entire family (26 members) had been killed in one bomb blast and he had been subjected to horrific torture under the Assad regime.

We volunteered in the camps on Chios providing legal aid. Any hopes we had on arrival of facilitating the speedy settlement of refugees in Europe were quickly dispelled. The structures in place on Chios for the processing of asylum applications were at breaking point. A tiny team of under-resourced and overworked staff from the Greek Asylum Service and European Asylum Support Organisation try to work through the mammoth backlog of cases, but with officers only conducting two asylum interviews per day each, the process moved at a glacial pace. Every day of infuriating bureaucracy is another day vulnerable people are left in appalling conditions. During this indeterminate period of delay in an individual’s protection claim being processed, the authorities failed to take any steps to disseminate information or timescales which would have minimised the psychological harm caused by the never-ending uncertainty.

So what can be done? A French legal NGO collected the accounts of 51 residents in the camps and applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to oblige Greece to take interim measures to safeguard the refugees from the risk of serious and irreversible harm. This application was quickly dismissed, with the residents being asked to wait (yet again) and abide by the usual procedures (yet again). The case of Raoufi and others v Greece, brought on behalf of several asylum seekers challenging their detention in camps in Greece, is pending before the ECtHR and doesn’t look likely to change the position for refugees in Europe any time soon. 

Some have placed their hopes in the controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey, signed in March of this year. The heart of the EU-Turkey deal is the return of so-called "irregular migrants" to Turkey. Syrian refugees who reach Turkey are expected to make their asylum claims there and await relocation to Europe. Turkey will then, on a one-for-one basis, take migrants from Europe who have not patiently waited their turn. The supposed lawfulness of such a deal comes from the suggestion that Turkey is a "safe third country" to which to remove refugees. 

The attractiveness of this agreement to the EU, which comes at a cost of several billion euros, is that it may deter refugees from undertaking the dangerous (and politically inconvenient) crossing into Europe. While the European Commission has insisted that the numbers of refugee arrivals has fallen, their assertions are contradicted by aid agencies who point out that the temporary drop in arrivals following the EU-Turkey deal was short-lived. Refugees continue to arrive in large numbers on Chios, to face appalling conditions on reception. Few are returned to Turkey and the promised funding has not yet been provided to Turkey’s satisfaction.

Our experience on Chios was that the EU-Turkey deal is not only not working, it is fundamentally unworkable. Most of the refugees with whom we worked had passed through Turkey on their way to Greece. Almost all had stories of mistreatment in Turkey. In particular, we were told of guards on the Syrian border shooting and wounding at desperate people – including women and small children – attempting to cross into Turkey. Once in Turkey, arbitrary arrest and detention was the norm. Those migrants most likely to be returned to Turkey (because they cannot be returned to their country of origin) are Syrians, for whom Turkey is clearly not a "safe third country". Turkey’s systematic refusal to allow refugees fleeing Syria to cross its border is a clear breach of international law mandating the reception of refugees. Those refugees who manage to slip through into Turkey are left without meaningful protection or support. Kurds are systematically mistreated by the Turkish state while migrants in general face abuse by police, army officials and criminals. Turkey simply is not a safe third country for refugees, as is underlined by the tiny numbers of people found appropriate for return. 

The EU is seeking to resolve its refugee crisis by returning vulnerable people to inhuman conditions in breach of EU member states’ obligations under international law. The assessments as to whether the refugees are returnable to Turkey, are meaningless. Thousands of refugees are waiting for months for these assessments and yet a tiny minority have been found to be appropriate for return. 

In the meantime, a humanitarian disaster unfolds. The physical and mental health of those trapped in the camps deteriorate. Children are left without schooling or proper protection. Violence breaks out. Self-harm rises. Lives are irreparably damaged. Further delay, for political, economic or legal wrangling, is not an option. As long as the European Union fails to act, it remains complicit in these human rights violations. 

Miranda Butler, Maria Moodie, Bryony Poynor and Saoirse Townshend are barristers who recently volunteered in Chios, providing legal aid to refugees.