25 August 2010
It's that time of year when we go through the annual ritual of the media and associated pundits doing down the A level and GCSE results. Whatever the results, it seems there will always be those who delight in undermining students' achievements.
The media always seem to take the negative view if the glass doesn't contain liquid right to the top, it must be partly empty rather than nearly full. They will focus on the small minority who did less well rather than lauding the vast majority who did well "Sats figures show reading standards drop" not "English and Maths standards rise", "16% of primary school leavers failing to reach expected reading level" not "84% reach expected reading level".
It's always one-quarter empty, never three-quarters full, in headline-land.
Whatever the results, "standards are falling" or, this year, "dumbing down".
If fewer students achieve higher grades or a particular grade, standards are falling.
If more students achieve higher grades, standards are falling because students and teachers can't be given credit for hard work or for actually improving.
The story is always that exams are easier than they were 'in my day' never that standards might have risen or assessment be more reflective of students' actual abilities.
The media prefer bad news to good news. Even when there is good news such as an improvement in exam results it has to be reported as bad news because good news isn't really news at all to cynical journalists and editors. Bad news sells more papers.
The results reflect the ability of teachers to teach the syllabus and the willingness of young people to commit to their education. Students can only achieve such high standards by dedication and applying what they have learned in a sustained and focused way.
There will inevitably be fluctuations from year to year because different pupils are taking different exam papers each year.
In an interview with ePolitix this time last year, Ian Toone, Voice's Senior Professional Officer (Education), said: "British qualifications are well-respected throughout the world; it is only interference by government which has caused people to lose confidence in the exams system.
"At a time when A-level results have risen, it seems naive to insist that this is all down to the hard work of pupils and teachers and that it represents a genuine improvement in standards rather than a dumbing down of the exams system; but it must be recognised that nowadays the exams industry is a very efficient and effective multi-million pound enterprise.
"Never has there been more support for pupils and teachers in terms of bespoke textbooks, revision guides and access to past exam papers, mark schemes and examiners' reports. Added to this is the unrelenting pressure that schools are under from Ofsted, local authority advisors and league tables to achieve more and more stringent targets or face the possibility of being closed down or put into special measures.
"So it is no surprise that so much time and effort is expended on squeezing every last possible chance for success out of pupils. Of course, exams are much more accessible today than they have ever been, but this does not mean that they are necessarily easier. Since the demise of the O-level over 20 years ago, examinations are no longer the preserve of a minority elite group of privileged pupils.
"Exams have now been opened up to a mass market, and in order to cater for this mass market exams have had to be stretched to cover a wider range of abilities and skills, but while this may mean that it is easier to scrape a pass mark, it is still very difficult to achieve a top grade and so students who do well in their exams are right to be proud of their achievements because they would not have achieved such high standards without applying themselves to their studies in a sustained and focused manner.
"The current system of examinations and qualifications captures a very wide range of skills and abilities so as long as pupils are guided appropriately to enroll for the courses which best suit their interests and abilities, there is no reason why they should not achieve success."
In a follow-up interview this year, he says: "I do not believe that A-levels are getting easier, even though the pass rates are rising. This is more an indication of the value that qualifications now have in British society, and of the pressure on students and teachers to achieve results.
"Students and teachers have responded to these pressures and deserve to be congratulated on their success."
In a statement on this year's GCSE results, he said: "GCSE students are to be congratulated on their achievements this year. This year's results are, historically, the best ever, with higher grade passes at A*-C up by 2% to 69.1% and the highest grades (A*-A) up by 1% to 22.6%. This indicates that schools and students are more motivated than ever to achieve the highest marks possible, not only because of the very high value that society, and especially employers, place on qualifications nowadays, but also because of the pressure of league tables, on which the survival of a school often depends. Students and their teachers have to work increasingly hard to attain the highest grades, and are under increasing pressure to do so.
"It should also be remembered that not all GCSE candidates are 16 year olds; there are now about 10% of students sitting GCSEs in Maths and English a year early, at age 15. This number has increased significantly following the demise of Key Stage 3 SATs at age 14. This has freed up schools to tailor provision to meet pupils' individual needs."
So, why can't we for once congratulate students and teaching staff for the results, which reflect both high standards of teaching and the willingness of young people to commit to their education? Students of all abilities who reach their potential should be praised. We should be proud of their achievements.
To take the system forward, we need to move the focus away from debating statistics to examining key issues such as the number, frequency and range of exams, the decline in the numbers taking some subjects and differences between boys' and girls' results.
As Ian Toone said, we should be looking at "education as a preparation for life rather than as a political football".