Exam upheaval in England fails to achieve stated goals and downgrades education

Janet Downs's picture

Alleged ‘grade inflation’ hasn't ended

Remember when Michael Gove used to bang on about grade inflation?   His reformed GCSEs, rushed, untrialled, and unevaluated, were supposed to tackle that supposed sin. 

But they haven’t.  

If exams are harder, and they are, pupils should achieve lower grades.  But that hasn’t happened.  Grade boundaries have been moved so the same proportion ‘pass’.  

‘Pass’ in government parlance means grades 4 and above.   In its eyes, anything less is not good. 

When did this invidious division of GCSE grades into good and bad begin?  No-one referred to good passes when GCSEs replaced CSEs and O LevelsAll grades were a pass.  They were labelled to show a pupil’s individual achievement: basic (G) to outstanding (A). 

But over the years a malign inference took hold.   Anything less than a C was a sign of failure. 

This subversion of the philosophy behind GCSE was accompanied by an increased emphasis on GCSE results and league tables.  The OECD warned about the negative effects of this in 2011.  

Exam system now drives education

Exams now drive the education system in England rather than being education’s servant.   Ofsted’s 2018 report into teacher attitudes shows four in ten secondary teachers think their schools value league table position more than education quality.  Fewer than a quarter of secondary teachers believe their school deliberately concentrates on ‘what’s best’ for pupils rather than overall exam results.  

The excessive emphasis on exam results has increased suspicions of off-rolling whereby schools exclude pupils likely to bring down test results.  21% of teachers had experienced off-rolling in their schools, the same Ofsted report shows.

Downgraded curriculum

The quality of education offered in English schools is downgraded by a narrowing of the curriculum in upper primary and during Key Stages 3 and 4.   The growing practice of starting GCSE courses in Year 9 means pupils have to make subject choices even earlier.  Their right to a broad, balanced curriculum ends even earlier.

English exam system not in line with high-performing countries

Michael Gove said exam reform was necessary in England to ‘reflect’ demands made in ‘high-performing jurisdictions’.  So keen was he to make  high-performing jurisdictions match his reforms that he commissioned not one, but two, reports investigating overseas exam systems*.

This research showed most high-performing countries do not have high stakes exams at the end of lower secondary (typically age 15/16).  If they took place they were few in number and used to decide upper secondary progression.  Crucially, they were NOT used to rank schools.  It's difficult to see how reforming exams at 16 has pegged England to high-performing countries when they don't have such exams.

The new exam system in England fails on these two counts.  It hasn’t tackled alleged grade inflation.  It hasn’t brought England’s exam system in line with high-performing countries.  Instead, exam reform has distorted the curriculum, downgraded education quality, encouraged more ‘gaming’ and greatly increased stress on pupils, their parents and teachers. 


*The first was commissioned from NFER.  Its results are summarised here together with our own research into jurisdictions not included in the NFER research.      Two years later, Gove asked Ofqual to research thirteen exam systems including eight already studied by NFER.    Gove could have saved Ofqual’s time if he'd read the earlier report and our FAQ.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 27/08/2018 - 15:47

You are so right Janet, and as you point out, it is not just us that have been making exactly the same case.

I published an article on my website in December 2015, by Professor Alastair Sharp. It is worth reading again.


Here is an extract.

"Some commentators have indicated that the micro-management of education, and the exam based culture that has developed at an increasing pace over the last decade, has resulted in a distortion of education and a decline in the very nature of the humanist tradition on which many education systems have been based. The humanist tradition in education aims to promote intellectual and emotional development, and aims to inspire an interest and a desire to learn, with the ultimate purpose of teaching the young how to live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. There is little evidence that this is what is happening in England’s test obsessed education system.

Campbell’s Law talks of distortions. What kind of ‘distortions’ have occurred? School league tables, ‘payment by results’ for teachers and pressure on school students have inevitably resulted in the need to ‘teach to the test’. Teaching to the test can be defined as a concentration on skills and activities that increase test scores with little concern for the depth of learning or understanding. This ‘commodification of learning’ results when education becomes merely a test score. A reduced concern for education is necessary as teachers prepare students for a narrowly focused test on which schools and students are judged. School education and instruction has become increasingly measurement driven – if you can’t measure it, exclude it!

Test scores and educational standards are not the same thing.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/08/2018 - 17:07

Peter's Blog on Kent Indpendent Education Advice also criticises reformed GCSEs:

'It is my opinion, shared  by many others, that GCSE students are the victims of yet another of a series of pointless changes. These appear to me to have no virtue whatever...'


John Mountford's picture
Mon, 27/08/2018 - 17:21

Roger has it. Janet, you are right in your analysis, but who actually cares enough to push for change, especially in the face of outright failure on the part of the teacherss' professional bodies. With 40% of their secondary schools' members admitting they " value league table position more than education quality." and "Fewer than a quarter of secondary teachers believe their school deliberately concentrates on ‘what’s best’ for pupils rather than overall exam results. ", it is silly to believe otherwise. Since the latest announcement over pay, I suspect it will be some time before the profession rediscovers it real mission, to educate children, not prepare them for the exam-machine.

But, maybe, I have to accept the status quo on this one.  How easy is it to do the right thing when powerful exponents of the present sad system have the mass-media in their pockets  and the unions are so ineffective?

More importantly, where are the champions of our young people to be found?

The one point I dispute in your otherwise excellent analysis of our failing examinations system, Janet, is your view about off-rolling.

"The excessive emphasis on exam results has increased suspicions of off-rolling whereby schools exclude pupils likely to bring down test results.  21% of teachers had experienced off-rolling in their schools, ".  There is ample evidence that off-rolling is happening. It is way  beyond suspicion.

This is just a very small sample of dozens of reports supporting my claim. This is not government policy, this is the profession damaging opportunities for the most vulnerable in our society. SURELY IT IS TIME TO STAND UP AND BE COUNTED!!!




Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/08/2018 - 08:04

John - the secondary school teachers surveyed said they thought their school valued league table position more than education quality.  That doesn't mean the surveyed teachers agreed with this emphasis.  I would suggest the emphasis is top-down coming from central command, 'executive principals' and the more ambitious of their colleagues.

The teaching force in England is skewed towards younger and more-easily manipulated teachers (some won't even have a professional qualification).  It's difficult for such teachers to kick the system.  Perhaps the difficulty in retaining experienced teachers is due in part to disillusionment (as well as poor pay in comparison to other professions, workload and burn out).  

Re off-rolling.   The 21% figure adds to the evidence about off-rolling.  I've no doubt it happens and  the practice is linked to certain MATs.  But suspicion alone is not enough - perhaps whistleblowers or parents of affected pupils may come forward until the dubious practice is exposed.   It was mentioned on Today this morning.  It's a chance for Opposition parties to pick up this dodgy practice and condemn it.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 28/08/2018 - 08:48

This issue goes right back to the early days af Academisation, and is dicussed in Section 2.3 of my book, 'Learning Matters' from which much of what follows is quoted.

On 16 January 2011, BBC Newsnight featured unofficial exclusions from Academies and the effect this was having on the proportions of pupils not entered for GCSE English and maths.

The BBC had researched the following data based on the 2010 GCSE results.

In Academies 3.5 percent of pupils were not entered for English and maths GCSEs compared to 2.0 percent in Local Authority Community Schools.

21 percent of Academies had fewer than 95 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than double the proportion of any other school type). 9 percent of academies had fewer than 90 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than triple the proportion of any other school type). 2 percent of academies had fewer than 80 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE whereas all other school types had zero percent of schools which fall within this bracket.

The key question raised by the Newsnight programme was why any school would not want to enter every pupil for GCSE English and maths, and this is where there is a mistake in my book. During my headship years, before my retirement in 2003, school GCSE performance data was based on the number of students on role in Y11 in the September of that year. I don't know when or why that changed. But change it did, providing a clear perverse incentive for off-rolling, which could be easily reversed. This would not entirely solve the problem as there are MATs where large numbers of students 'disappear' before Y11. The only proper solution is for all children to be registered with their LA, which would have to be involved in any proposals to change schools or adopt 'home schooling'. This would also address students being taken out of the country for forced marriages.

Because parents can always be put under pressure to withdraw a less able, or more troublesome child and seek a place in another school, the real reasons for non-entry may be much more troubling and relate to the concept of educational failure. Unsurprisingly, more spirited student 'failures' tend to become alienated and disruptive and they may then degrade the teaching/instruction/cramming/revision environment for all the E/D graders that the school is desperately trying to get up to a C. As permanent exclusion is too risky with OfSTED, a solution is to ‘get rid’ by arranging various forms of ‘alternative’ off-site education. The BBC Newsnight programme featured an example of a female student with a Statement of Special Educational Needs placed on a programme in which mainly boys were taught various cognitively undemanding craft skills in an off-site unit run by an ex-army officer. She was not allowed to attend any classes at her Academy school and so she was not entered for GCSE English or maths in year 11. A headteacher on the programme admitted that such practice was common and described it as an example of, ‘the dark arts’ of headship.

In my book I wrote that, "the reason why this is more likely in Academies than in LA controlled schools is simply because Academies, being independent of LA control, can get away with it. It is not hard to predict what may happen in the new Free Schools, which like Academies don’t even have to employ qualified teachers (or even qualified headteachers."

I certainly got that right.

andy gray's picture
Tue, 28/08/2018 - 11:45

Hi Janet,
Just one small quibble with your article . When GCSE replaced CSE and O level grades A to E were termed 'satisfactory passes' and other grades 'unsatisfactory passes'. Not quite good and bad passes but not far off.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 28/08/2018 - 13:10

Sorry Andy, but around that time I was both a CSE and GCSE chief examiner as well as the curriculum Vice Principal of a large Leicestershire Upper School. I have no recollection of any such description. At the point where CSE was abolished the grade 4 was still defined as 'the grade expected of student of average ability that has followed an appropriate course of study. CSE Grade 4 became GCSE grade F at the point of transition. in our school we had already successfully piloted the GSCE in the form of 'The Common Exam at 16+' for a number of years. What you suggest is an assault on the English language. Pass means pass. In many areas of study 'pass' can be qualified by 'with merit' or 'with distinction', but never preceded with 'satisfactory', 'unsatisfactory', 'good' or 'bad'. The only logical description below 'pass' is 'fail', which is what the government has actually created, begging the question that if that is what is meant why are we retaining 'grades of failure' other than U (ungradable). Section 1.10 in my book, 'Learning Matters' sets out the history of GCSE grades. The following is an extract.

"The CSE grade system was overtly percentile based with Grades 1 – 5 defined by the following ‘fixed percentile points’.
Grade 1 Equivalent to GCE grade C (therefore approximating to the 80th percentile)
Grade 4 The grade which a pupil of average ability (50th percentile) could be expected to achieve on completing a competently taught course of study.
Grade 5 The lower limit of Grade 5, and therefore the CSE system, was intended to be at the 40th percentile. This meant that the CSE was aimed only at the top 60 percent of the comprehensive school population. Pupils below this level were deemed to be ‘non-exam’.
Grades 2 and 3 were awarded on the basis of dividing the total population achieving between the Grade 1 threshold and the top mark for Grade 4 into two equal size groups. This principle was then applied so as to arrange the other grade boundaries to result in each grade 2-5 having the same numbers of pupils.

As soon as the first GCSE results came out in 1988 teachers realised that the value of the C grade had in fact been devalued. The consensus at that time amongst teachers was that the new C grade at GCSE was about equivalent to a D at GCE (Grade 2 at CSE). No-one worried too much about this at the time. With hindsight this was a modest change in the light of the truly epic scale of grade inflation that was to follow. More unfortunately a wide section of the teaching profession, including the teaching unions, became increasingly trapped into having to deny this, even though it had long been obvious to everybody involved in the education system. The most frequent defence of what was happening was the resort to the ‘how hard the pupils had worked’ argument, articulated by media coverage of pupils opening their results envelopes every August.

The passing of the 1988 Education Act brought about the next major change in the assumptions of grading. Schools soon had to compete in league tables based on the proportion of pupils in the school achieving 5+A-C passes at GCSE. Following the election of New Labour in 1997, any school that failed to achieve 25 percent 5+A*-C (the first floor target) was deemed to be failing by definition, regardless of the average cognitive ability of its intake.

This sought to deny any direct link between pupil cognitive ability and exam performance and placed responsibility for obtaining C+ GCSE results squarely with the school. Failure to obtain at least a C grade at GCSE was at first blamed on ‘low expectations’ on the part of teachers, with schools and teachers accused of fulfilling the role of the educational jailers of pupils locking them into the class defined prisons they were born into.

This vilification of comprehensive schools serving areas of social and economic deprivation and their teachers has persisted ever since with all attempts at a defence being condemned as ‘making excuses for failure’. So-called evidence for this alleged failure was regularly churned out in the form of the persistently poor results of pupils from poor communities compared to their more affluent peers (the ‘attainment gap’). That there might be significant differences in average cognitive ability between school admission cohorts was never considered, investigated or controlled for.


Later, as a high proportion of schools still failed to meet the floor target despite expectations and exhortations raised to ‘Masterchef’ levels, and a huge increase in education spending by the Labour government, the blame increasingly became shifted towards ‘irresponsible parents’ who were condemned for locking their children into their own class-defined underachievement as a result of antisocial and dysfunctional parenting. By now, high % 5+A-C = good school, low % 5+A-C = bad school, became the established assumption that leaked from the education pages of the quality press to the aspirational property pages and TV shows that fuelled two decades of ultimately disastrous house price inflation turning this completely irrational and false assumption about school quality into an accepted fact of everyday discourse. Thus to the disaster of lack of access to housing has been added the catastrophe of schools ‘failing by definition’.

andy gray's picture
Tue, 28/08/2018 - 13:44

Hi Roger,
I was teaching in West Sussex at the time and this was the language used when we received our training for the new regime from the LEA and exam board. The only reason I remember it is the fact that we too treated this distinction with scorn and derision, making much the same points as you do above. I've no idea of the status of the advice we received (e.g. was it a purely local phenomenon) but receive it we did. I fully agree that it was and is a nonsense.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 29/08/2018 - 08:40

Hi andy,  The news that an LEA promoted the idea of satisfactory and unsatisfactory passes at GCSE is a shocking revelation.  I taught in Lincolnshire at the time and there was no suggestion that the lower grades F and G were not satisfactory.  It was made clear that ALL GCSE grades were passes.  The only fail was a grade U.

Keith Joseph, who was SoS at the time, made it clear to the Commons on 20 June 1984 (see Hansard here).  He envisaged:

“…a seven-point scale of grades denoted by the letters A to G. Candidates who do not demonstrate the required minimum level of performance will fail. It will grade candidates by their performance better than now, on the basis of what they themselves know and can do and without regard to the performance of others. 

This not only made it clear that all grades would be deemed a pass.  It also signalled a move from norm referencing to criterion referencing whereby candidates were judged on their own performance against agreed criteria.  But now we have fiddling with grade boundaries so the same proportion 'pass' (ie are awarded grades above grade 4).

At the same time,  high achievement is being more finely tuned with the addition of grade 9.  There are now six upper grades (4-9) but just three lower ones (1-3).  Ironically, this has contributed to the very grade inflation the DfE claims the new GCSEs solve.   Logically, a new grade 4 should have been the equivalent of an old grade D but this didn't happen. 

A cynic might say the Government were trying to avoid an uproar similar to the one that erupted after the GCSE English debacle in 2012  by making grade 4 a 'standard pass' equivalent to borderline D/C.   This manipulation of grades doesn't apply to judging schools of course.   Schools will be judged on how many pupils achieve a 'strong pass' at grade 5.  This is a tacit admission that grade 4 isn't the equivalent of an old grade C.    It's only a 'pass' for PR purposes.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 12:05

This not only made it clear that all grades would be deemed a pass.  It also signalled a move from norm referencing to criterion referencing whereby candidates were judged on their own performance against agreed criteria.

In the 1980s 'criterion referencing' was all the rage. However, it was often degraded into 'tick box' 'can do' systems. What did for it at GCSE was when C+ grades in English and maths became necessary as part of 5+A*-C for league table and floor target purposes. I don't remember when this was, but the reason was to counter the GNVQ scam whereby a GNVQ in one subject (usually IT) was worth 4 x GCSE C+ passes. As pass rates were usually 100 percent , all a school had to do was add one further 'easy' subject (often RE), or just two such GNVQs (the other was often 'science'), to get 100 percent GCSE pass rates without English and maths or any other GCSE subject. This practice rapidy spread from Academies to LA schools in poor areas, resulting in 'Spectacular School Improvement'.  All this is explained in detail in Part 3 of 'Learning Matters'. The result was a sudden upsurge in 'super schools' led by 'superheads' feted in the national media and especially in Education Guardian. This enabled Tony Blair and New Labour to claim success for its 'zero tolerance of failure' policies implimented by Blunkett.

This was an especially sad chapter in New Labour's endorsement of the Thatcher/Baker marketisation plan for our education system. In terms of the current issue in relation to harder exams, but with the results fiddled by the government to give the impression that the students can still do them so reflecting  'the success of the marketised education system', we are indeed seeing history repeated. 

The problem was that as the national GCSE C+ pass rate in maths had always been way below 50%, the first year that English and maths had to be included within 5+A*-C would have resulted in an apparent collapse of standards. Something therefore had to go and that was any semblance of criterion referencing in GCSE maths exams. Maths teachers, often urged on by their heads, soon found ways hitting the button by only teaching the easy parts of the syllabus and cramming students with these through huge incentives/pressure and extra time in the curriculum to the exclusion of other subjects. I discuss this in my Forum article about Perry Beeches School in BIrmingham, led by one of the best known 'superheads' of the period. You can read it here.


agov's picture
Wed, 29/08/2018 - 12:47

" No-one referred to good passes when GCSEs replaced CSEs and O Levels" etc.

Seems unlikely. People certainly referred to good (1 - 4) and bad (5 - 6) passes for O levels. You sure you people didn't spend too much time around teachers and other education types? My impression was (and is) that generally people regard all GCSE grades as rubbish (except for their own relatives obviously).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 14:30

agov - O levels weren't numerically graded.  They were given letters as explained here.  These changed over the years.  Until 1975, grades didn't appear on certificates (my O level certs just say I passed - I haven't a clue what the grades were).    In  my experience (after grades were put on certs)), we regarded  O level A-C as passes, the rest as fails (although the grade of the fail was used to decise whether it was worth retaking the O level or not).  CSEs were numbered 1-5.  CSE grade 1 was equivalent to GCE O level C.

All GCSE grades are not 'rubbish'.  Keith Joseph made it clear as I said above.  All GCSE grades except U were passes from basic to outstanding (an extra grade, A*, was added later).    The old GCSE grades G-D were Level One qualifications; old GCSE grades c-A* were Level Two.  New GCSE grades 1-3 are Level One; 4-9 are Level Two.    Levels One and Two are the second and third steps on the eight qualification levels for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (see here).    Entry Level is the first step.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 15:18

agov is probably referring to the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board (NUJMB) GCEs. Unlike all the other boards, which were graded A-C, NUJMB used grades 1 - 6, with grade 6 being a pass (just). There were no other grades.  GCE grades D and E certainly came in before the GCSE superceded it. D was CSE grade 2  and E was CSE grade 3. In the CSE era many courses were limited grade with grade 3 being the highest possible. Remember that right up to the demise of CSE, grade 4 (the lower 'fixed point') was defined as the grade for a student of average ability (50th percentile) that had followed a competently taught course of study. CSE grade 4 became GCSE grade F, which was therefore placed at the 50th percentile. This subsequently became first grade C (average attainment) before the C was related further to be the 'expected' grade for all students.

This being the case there is absolutely no doubt about the epic scale of GCSE grade inflation, most of which took place when Tony Blair was prime minister, and this does not even take account of the GNVQ scam when students could gain 4 x C 'equivelants' just for turning up to most of the lessons. Funny how OfSTED never noticed anything wrong here. Could this be because then Academies could only be inspected by a specially chosen and trained  team of inspectors that never seemed to find anything wrong with these schools. Part 3 of Learning Matters contains extracts from Academy inspections from that time. They would be laughable if not so shocking.  

andy gray's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 15:54

NUJMB did have numerical fail grades 7,8,9. I remember this from my English Language (1) and English Literature results (9) in 1969. Here's a link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GCE_Ordinary_Level_(United_Kingdom)#Grading

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 16:32

Confusion about exams in the last 20 years have been worsened by continued changing of goalposts eg judging schools on how many pupils got 5 A-C grades and then changing it to 5 A-C including Maths and English; adding an extra grade (A*); introducing new exams eg the short-lived Diploma and now T Levels (likely to go the same way as the Diploma) and dropping exams along the way.

You mentioned GNVQ: General National Vocational Qualifications.   Introduced in 1992, they ended in 2007 and were replaced in schools by vocational exams such as BTec.  These were given a false 'equivalence' to GCSEs (Gove was right to stop this equivalence which was, as you  say, became a scam for getting pupils over the 5 GCSEs A*-C including M+E).

When GNVQs first began, the Times Educational Supplement asked readers to suggest a more user-friendly name for these exams.  There were several suggestions but some, TES said, were 'positively rude'.   This was followed by examples of these vulgar suggestions.  It began:

'Janet Downs suggested GENETALS, General Examinations Taken by All'.

Funny, but my suggestion didn't take off.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 15:57

Your memory is better than mine - mine were all 6+!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 30/08/2018 - 16:41

It appears that the grading system wasn't even the same all over the country!.   I took Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board and then Associated Examination Board O Levels.  I don't remember grades and my certs don't give any.  Yet we are of similar age (vintage) and you remember grades which were numbered!

No wonder the exam system in England appears so confused (see my comment above).  And now we got reformed GCSEs numbered 1-9 with 4 being a 'standard pass' and 5 being a 'strong pass'.    It won't be long before some politician says a standard pass isn't good enough.  All must be strong and stronger if not strongest.

Any sensible exam reform would have moved to graduation at 18 via multiple routes (which could include GCSEs but these would just be regarded as stepping stones to future study and NOT to judge schools).

agov's picture
Fri, 31/08/2018 - 12:17

"O levels weren't numerically graded"

And as others have mentioned at least some were. Probably including yours as you took AEB as did I. My grades are not on my certificate but I was told at the time. They have featured on my CV ever since I discovered I needed a CV not that I was ever told that by school or anyone else. Employers used to ask what your O level grades were. Can't remember if my A level college asked but I expect so. I suspect (but with no evidence) that schools/FE colleges would have often been contacted by potential employers to ask.

" I haven't a clue what the grades were"

Just guessing, but perhaps you stayed at the same school to do A levels; then went on to other education facilities that may have easily found out from your school; before going on to be a teacher not necessarily on the basis of your O level grades.

"Keith Joseph made it clear"

He did but I doubt that the public has ever really believed it possibly because of the grade inflation Roger details. Not to mention at a higher level things like this -


"politician says a standard pass isn't good enough"

Can't find a link but Gibb has said that he expects the 'reformed' GCSEs to become harder over time i.e. after the current grade adjustment to provide fairness for students who spent most of their time under the old system.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/09/2018 - 11:56

agov - a sign of the times, perhaps, but way back when I took my first batch of O levels (Oxford and Cambridge), I didn't bother to go into school to get the results because I'd already been offered a secretarial course at FE College.  All I and my friends were interested in was whether we passed or failed - a friend phoned me up to say I'd passed.  The next year I took some AEB O levels but for personal reasons I wasn't at home when the results arrived.  When I was sent the certs they had no grades on them.  It wasn't until I started working as a clerk in a college that I discovered grades existed.  I think these were numbered.

Not quite sure what cheating uni students have to do with Keith Joseph's statements from the early 80s.

I found a Gibb quote about a transition period to protect pupils from 'volatility' (aka fending off parental protests similar to the GCSE English debacl of 2012):

T'he comparable outcomes approach used by Ofqual will protect students from any volatility caused by the introduction of new qualifications. In the longer term, Ofqual is introducing a national reference test to measure changes in performance across cohorts as pupils and teachers rise to the challenge of the more demanding standard.'

But if the exams are expected to become more demanding over time, it follows that reformed exams taken in 2016 and 2017 will be regarded as 'easier' than later ones and the grades therefore are of lesser weight (as in you took exams in 2016 when the exams were easier, therefore your 4 is really a 3).


agov's picture
Sun, 02/09/2018 - 13:13

"All I and my friends..."

Me too. Gradings may have been unofficial (- not that I knew that) but the reality outside education (and perhaps inside it) was that people asked for and made decisions because of them. You linked to Pearson though AEB became part of AQA. Not sure that unofficial Pearson (and predecessor) unofficial grades were necessarily the same as used with other boards nor that all institutions abided by any particular unofficial standard. Don't think there was any question of any of us going to my O level college to obtain results so I assume I must have been written to (as certainly happened with my A levels - the AEB certificate for which does have alphabetic grades on it but it was not issued until months after the results were provided).

"Not quite sure what..."

Nothing directly but, for what it's worth, I would venture that the introduction of GCSEs was the event that marked the start of the decline in public esteem for educational output and the perception that modern youths do and achieve little (despite getting so many GCSEs) but demand everything. I would link to a recent job advert reflecting that but it would be sexist.

"a Gibb quote about..."

I saw a recent interview with him where he spoke of his expectation that the new GCSEs would become more demanding over time. Possibly it has been ignored as everyone is too busy enjoying his interview with Nick Ferrari.

"of lesser weight..."

Nothing new there surely?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/09/2018 - 11:35

agov - I don't accept the generalisation that 'modern youths...achieve little...but demand everything.'    I dislike blanket generalisations tarnishing particular age groups.  They are unfair and potentially divisive (eg selfish babyboomers, snowflake millenials etc).   

You're right that A levels were graded.  I was mortified when I discovered my grade for my first A level  was an E.  Apparently I share this with Corbyn who was once described as 'thick' by some media type because he only got Es.   Both Corbyn and I took A levels many decades ago and we're told there's been grade inflation since then.  In 2009, Radio 4's 'More or Less'  investigated grade inflation at A level (see FAQ for link) and concluded that there'd been inflation of two grades.  That would make Corbyn's and my E grade worth a C (not quite so thick).  But before I gloat too much, Full Fact investigated grade inflationa year later and found the evidence re grade inflation was inconclusive.

The most recent Private Eye (issue 1477) had a cartoon (p28) which showed an exam board spokesman explaining the new exam system:

'We tweak the grades awarded to the lowered marks in the harder exam required by the revised syllabus to ensure that the standard remains the same'.

So much for higher standards.  If the new grades are tweaked to match the old, supposedly-inflated grades, then there's been no raising of standards.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 03/09/2018 - 14:02

It's worse than that Janet. If the pass mark for Grade 4 in maths and sciences falls to 25% (and I suspect it was actually even lower) it means that midwifery students that could not attempt/got wrong three quarters of the questions will get into our worst rated universities (former FE colleges) on the basis of GCSE grades they got by chance or by cramming plus a 100% pass rate BTEC. Hence recurring maternity unit tragedies as at Morecambe Bay and now even worse, ten years later at Shrewsbury and Telford, while our poor school pupils get abused and subjected to phycological torture.

Result: maternirty 

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/09/2018 - 15:10

Roger - I, too, am concerned that pupils will gain a 'standard pass' even when they got a low percentage of questions correct just to avoid a large number of pupils gailing to get a standard pass (and the ensuring uproar similar to the 2012 GCSE English furore).  Rather than raising standards, the new GCSEs have the perverse affect of lowering them.  Another perverse effect is that pupils with a standard pass or even a strong pass will be accepted on A level courses where they are inadequately prepared.

However, entry to uni is based on A level or Level 3 BTEC exams not GCSEs.   

I would question your assertion that former Polytechnics have morphed into the 'worst-rated universities'.   Polytechnics were often sneered at though they performed a valuable service in providing vocational education and training instead of purely academic as in universities at the time.   Polytechnics weren't former FE colleges but High Education (HE) colleges.  FE colleges are Further Education colleges which mainly provide education (vocational BTECs and academic A levels) to 16-19 year olds.  Some have also become university centres offering a limited range of degrees or Level 4 HNDs (eg Grantham College).

I'm not sure that the tragedies at some maternity units were caused by nurses having low GCSE grades before entering training.  My understanding was that the deaths were caused in part by an excessive emphasis on 'natural childbirth' which left babies struggling to be born and mothers in acute distress while intervention in the form of C-sections was discouraged.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 03/09/2018 - 15:46

I agree that the 'natural childbirth movement was, and remains at the core of maternity tragedies. You should read, 'Push Back' by Amy Tuteur. She explains how the twisting and rejection of science is at the core of the radical feminism that underpins the movement.  She writes," They dismiss science as a male form of  'authoritative knowledge' on the understanding that there are 'other ways of knowing', such as intuition. Many are postmodernists who believe that reality is radically subjective, that rationality is unnecessary, and that including the nonrational is 'sensible midwifery'."

I can't help thinking that a grade 4, GCSE is insufficient defence against the radical feminist 'natural childbirth' movement, let alone a 2018 grade 4 which is really a grade 3 (or less).


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/09/2018 - 17:42

No GCSE, however high, could be considired sufficient defence against radical feminist 'natural childbirth' ideas.  It's not meant to be.  It's meant to show whether a pupil has got basic knowledge (Level One, ie GCSEs G-D, 1-3) or better-than-basic (Level Two, ie GCSEs C-A*, 4-9).  Both 'natural' childbirth and intervention should be studied in depth by pupil midwives and obstetricians.   Natural childbirth is in any case a misnomer.  Very few (and I would say unfortunate) women cope with childbirth completely alone and without help.  And mothers who don't get appropriate help die or give birth to still-born or damaged babies.   The maternal and infant death rates in countries where modern obstetrics aren't available is testament to that.

However, we're straying from the main point: reformed GCSEs haven't done what they are claimed to do and have negative consequences.  They should only be regarded as stepping stones to further study or eventual employment and not given such disproportionate emphasis.  Real reform would have moved to graduation at 18 via multiple routes.  These could include GCSEs at whatever Level or grade and without subjective sneers about GCSEs being 'rubbish'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 03/09/2018 - 18:00

I agree Janet

agov's picture
Tue, 04/09/2018 - 12:24

One must hope this is not a generalisation -


Adonis though is normally pretty much guaranteed to be wrong about everything -


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/09/2018 - 17:18

agov - re universities' assertion that googling has reduced student preparedness for uni:  six years ago, 50% of uni lecturers though undergraduates were poorly prepared for academic study.   The blame was put on spoon feeding during A level courses.  Unis wanted original thinkers not fact spewers.  

Re Adonis and former polys.  Rebranding polys as unis was an attempt to raise the reputation of the former.  It didn't work.  Former polys are still regarded as low-performing institutions offering 'Mickey Mouse' degrees.  This attitude reflects the pervasive prejudice against vocational courses which also affects schools ('academic' is deemed superior to 'vocational' - the latter wrongly deemed to be something undertaken by the less-than-bright).  As for fees, it was obvious that all unis would charge the maximum - having the highest fees could be regarded as denoting the highest quality (not true, but no uni is likely to set lower fees because it might send out the message that the cheaper uni would be bargain basement - Poundstretcher rather than Harrods).

agov's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 11:07

"uni: six years ago..."

No improvement then.

"Rebranding polys..."

I thought it was a wheeze to instantly show how the government had enlarged the output of our universities.

"Former polys are still regarded..."

Not all were and not all are.

"Former polys are still regarded as low-performing institutions offering 'Mickey Mouse' degrees"

Certainly some -


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 17:32

agov - the data which was presumably used by the IFS and Sam Gymah  is here.   It shows that graduates in art have the lowest earning potential and graduates in medicine have the highest.  This earning potential would apply even if the art graduates studied fine art at Oxford or a lower ranking uni.       It was not the uni which governed the earning potential but the subject.  

Take computer science as an example.  It has high earning potential.  Ths would apply irrespective of whether the graduate studied at, say, Leicester University or nearby De Montfort (former poly which is ranked lower than Leicester).   But graduate prospects are actually higher for De Montfort graduates (just scraped n the top 30 unis for prospects) than for Leicester (about 20+ places lower than De Montfort).   You can look at uni rankings and sort them here.    Warning: it's addictive.

That said, there is no doubt that unis are competing to get 'bums on seats' hence the unacceptable rise in unconditional offers.  This, again, is a consequence of high fees.


agov's picture
Thu, 06/09/2018 - 09:16

"presumably used by the IFS"

Presumably the one done by the IFS -


"It was not the uni which governed the earning potential but the subject. "

Not entirely. Your link itself says that it "shows both variation in the average graduate earnings outcomes by subject, but also variation across institutions within the same subject". More specifically, "family background has an important impact on graduates' future earnings, as well as subject and institution choice". -



Even "comparing the same subject at different institutions there is a wide range" -


Possibly only to be expected given that the priority is to fill places by bribery or any means possible against a background in which Roger keeps telling us average IQs are decreasing; and student welfare must always come first -


The charlatan NuLab Government boasted that increasing the number of graduates would increase prosperity (as better performing economies produced more graduates - who could question such unimpeachable logic?). How's that working out for those creative arts students (or anyone else)?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 06/09/2018 - 10:24

agov: For once I agree with you. Wherever you look the privatisation of public services it is a disaster. Here is a short list for starters. Council housing (kiils the tenants of Grenville Tower), prisons (ours must be the worst in the western world), LA outsourcing (from school meals to cleaning and financial services), the probation service, assessing claimants for benefits, trunk roads (our A590, run by Kier Construction) has had the same day burning street lamps for years despite my complaints to the Highways Agency), anything run by G4S, Serco or Capita, Academy/Free schools (abuse of pupils, cheating and money pits constantly fed by DfE as so well documented by Janet) and, as you say - universities. And how could I forget our hopeless and massively overpriced train services (we are tortured by Northern Rail) and our very expensive  local buses (Stagecoach). 

The reason is that private companies always priorise profits over quality of service. You can't blame them for this it is in their DNA. The result is aways the emergence of perverse incentives that always work against the public interest. This is the universal law of public service privatisation.

Our eldest daughter, the product of 'looney left' Counteshorpe College in Leicestershire got a first in Chemistry at Sheffield Univesity (a Russell Group University). At the degree congregation in 1994, the Vice Chancellor, a delightful elderly academic, gave a stirring speech about the duty of Sheffield graduates to repay society for their excellent education through taking every opportunity to contribute service to society,

Two years later, after gaining her PhD at Leeds University (also Russell Group) the Vice Chancellor made a tedious self-promoting speech setting out the entrepreneurial success of Leeds University in the world market of selling its services.

The biggest threat of privatisation of public services is not just their crappy ineptitude, but the fact that the providers of real public services (eg LAs and NHS Foundation Trusts) think that widespread privatisation gives them the right to ape high corporate executive, management salaries and to appoint market bla-bla drivel spouting dimwits to the most senior positions so corrupting what should be noble institutions.

I could go on but will pause for now.


agov's picture
Fri, 07/09/2018 - 08:59

"I could go on but will pause for now"

But I was enjoying it.

andy gray's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 11:15

If they had seriously wanted parity of esteem they should have shifted the med, law and engineering schools across to the poly/new universities sector.

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