Daily Telegraph 24/8/07

YESTERDAY’S GCSE results – and those published for A-levels last week – tell us virtually nothing about whether underlying standards in our schools are rising or falling.

Why? Because too much about the exams system changes from year to year for anyone to be sure about what might be driving any improvement in the figures.

Any teenager who gets good marks at A-level or GCSE is likely to have worked hard. But are they more motivated than predecessors, and are their teachers working more effectively than they used to, or not? For both of these questions, the answer could be “yes”. But the statistics provide little evidence one way or the other.

The exam system is fraught with uncertainty. Because fresh question papers have to be written for each exam, the number of marks needed for particular grades also has to alter, to reflect a board’s decision about whether each exam was harder or easier this year. This is, to put it mildly, an imprecise and politically sensitive business. Two changes in recent years make the figures even less reliable. They mean that schools would be expected to achieve better results, even if teaching standards and pupil commitment remained the same.

First, the range of courses on offer has broadened, with pupils encouraged to take vocational exams if they are less academic. In 2004, compulsory foreign language lessons were cut. Whatever the arguments for or against this move, it is likely to have improved pass rates.

Second, the amount of information provided by exam boards on how to do well at GCSE and A-level has changed out of all recognition over the past 15 years.

In the past, schools had to rely on having an examiner on their staff if they wanted tips on exam success. Now boards make this available to everyone online and through seminars.

Some even run advice conferences for pupils, while syllabuses are now minutely detailed, giving teachers precise information on what will and will not be tested.

Another factor is more subtle. Schools are under pressure from the Government over exam results and league tables, and are looking for any edge they can get. They routinely run extra classes for those believed to be at risk of narrowly missing the crucial C grade. Many also provide so much guidance on coursework that teachers effectively tell pupils what to write. Improvements born of this behaviour will say more about schools’ ability to meet the measurement system’s demand for improved statistics, almost however they are achieved, than about any underlying gains in teaching quality.

Ministers complain that those questioning the figures are undermining students’ achievements. Yet the Government has set up a system in which exam results are also the main check on its own performance. Because the data cannot perform this function effectively, questions will persist.

The bigger issue is the price that is being paid in classrooms, as schools are being defined as successes or failures on the back of these dubious figures. They are becoming exam factories, encouraged to teach to the test and with little time or scope for non-examined aspects of education.

That politicised, exam-driven schooling is happening when the grades being generated have so little to offer as objective guides to education standards makes it all the more tragic.

  • Warwick Mansell is the author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing, published by Politico’s, and is the exams and curriculum specialist at The Times Educational Supplement.


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