There’s a growing scandal about the marking of GCSE English examinations in England and Wales. In fact, the Welsh Executive have announced that GCSE English papers must now be re-marked so that pupils and their parents can at least feel they have been fairly treated. It all centres on the raising of the pass mark for the exam.
Initially, the eye of the storm seems to focus on the fact that students who were predicted and expected to pass GCSE English, having passed exams earlier in the year, now have ended-up failing. This was blamed on the examination board raising the pass mark, and it has been shown that this was done under the pressure of a government body. Although the trail stops there, many would love to discover that the Education Minister, Michael Gove, had in his turn pressurised that particular government body, Ofqual, to raise pass marks. (There’s no evidence that he has, so far.)
Part of the reason why suspicion has so quickly fallen on Mr Gove is because he has made his criticisms of the current examination system unambiguous: he believes the increases in attainment are due to grade inflation. He has said publicly that he thinks standards have to be raised.
For many years, there has been growing disquiet that examination standards have slipped. Year on year increases in attainment seem unusual; there is anecdotal evidence that some teachers feel exams are easier across the board; there’s an exodus of private schools in England an Wales, and partially in Scotland, from the national examination bodies to international exam bodies or to developing their own qualifications such as the Pre-U, and there’s a tacit implied admission in England and Wales that an A at A-level might not be the Gold Standard, hence the introduction of the A star grade for an exceptional A pass.
Michael Gove, privately educated in Aberdeen, lends his weight to initiatives that promote grammar and would have classics restored to the curriculum, combined with his championing of free schools where parents remove their children to government supported schools with, in theory, more challenging curricula.
Obviously being a Conservative Education Minister, he is not idol of the teachers’ unions, or many teachers, I’d imagine. He is often charged with elitism and the slow destruction of the comprehensive system.
I’m not sure that about his policies regarding the system of education. However, I think that the charge of elitism, and the furore about the examinations, are in danger of traducing and smearing something which he is trying to tackle, and that the subsequent scandal and political posturing is confusing a very important issue that needs to be addressed: the raising of standards.
I’m not on Michael Gove’s part of the political spectrum, but high standards for me isn’t about a wealthy, privileged elite who have access to resources, emotional, intellectual and material, beyond the norm, and who can then enjoy the social and economic benefits that their educational excellence bestows upon them.
I believe that standards are very democratic and that all an individual needs is to be introduced to them and they can combine that with determination to achieve what they want in life. High standards are for everybody and introducing them can have a transformative effect.
Ramsay MacDonald, an almost forgotten prime minister despite holding office for 6 years and being the first Labour prime minister, was the illegitimate son of a field worker and a housemaid. From an inauspice and impoverished beginning, it was his good fortune that he had a teacher who believed in mastery – the mastery of grammar – because he believed that when you ‘could master one subject, you were half-way to mastering all the rest’. MacDonald imbibed his lessons thoroughly: the self-confidence his grammatical knowledge gave him allowed him to become a journalist, a MP, to move easily without a sense of inferiority – some said too easily – in the stately homes of England on his way to becoming prime minister. Not bad, but without the exacting standards of his grammar-trusting teacher would he have gone so far?
Abraham Lincoln, born in a shack, beaten and left alone for months at a time, had in total, by his own reckoning, a ‘year and a half of schooling’. But he had a step-mother who made sure that he read, and read not just any old books, but one of the finest pieces of written English in existence, the King James Bible. Exposure to this standard of writing, followed by Shakespeare, allowed Lincoln to become possibly the greatest prose writer in American history – it’s not clear how many ‘literary’ books he read; it may only have been three! Oh, he was also one of the most far-sighted and intelligent politicians that I’ve ever read about, completely changing the course of his country, and, I suppose, the world.
Having a high standard raises people. It may be that not everyone can achieve a high standard; but it seems to me far worse that people are not exposed to a high standard at some point in their lives to see whether they can achieve that standard or not. Everyone should have that opportunity.
I work in a school that has many pupils that struggle with basic literacy, some of them are years behind where, ideally, they should be. Could learning grammar and Latin change their prospects? Real world: probably not. But certainly having a solid, basic standard would help them and give them a basis for where they would like to go next.
Likewise there are pupils where I work who will continually raise their own performance to meet any standard put in front of them. All they need is a clear and exacting standard to really excel; they take on the responsibility for the work and learning themselves. It’s tragic if they are being let down due to grade inflation or having their peers in other schools draw ahead of them just because the only examinations they are allowed to sit are not exacting enough, and therefore less esteemed by Russell group universities or other bodies.
Like Michael Gove or not, I hope that the genuine debate to be had about standards does not fall victim to what some people are describing as a ‘scandal’. It is more important that standards are maintained than people pass – although, in this particular case, the waters are already muddied by the change seeming to happen half-way through the year, which gets the whole issue off on the wrong foot.
High standards are empowering of people. With the advent of the new curriculum in Scotland and its new examinations, it would be a worthwhile debate to have. What are going to be our standards and how will we keep them?