The Education debate

Year after year we get better and better exam results announced, followed by the ritual fisticuffs between those who argue that the standard has been dumbed down, and the other side who say such claims demean the excellent work of teachers and pupils, and that standards get better year on year.
So it was amusing to see our East Midlands MP Vernon Coaker (of Gedling — for now), a Minister in what used to be called the Ministry of Education, on television trying to justify the results.  Why wasn’t he worried about exam standards?  Why because Ofsted and various other assorted quangoes had not advised the government of a problem.  I was itching to hear the interviewer say “OK.  Ofsted has not identified a problem.  But Universities have.  Employers have.  Many schools have, and are voting with their feet to go to other exam systems, notably the more rigorous IGCSE.  So why is the government listening so carefully to the dog that didn’t bark, while the wolves are baying at the door?”
In a real sense, universities and employers are the ultimate “customers” of the secondary education system, and if they’re up in arms, we can’t rest on the Silence of the Quangoes.  And of course the critics are right.  You have only to look at today’s exam papers, with simple multiple-choice questions and box-ticking, where the pupil is led to the right answer by the question, and the modular course-work where teaching comes in bite-sized lumps, and failed modules can be re-sat at the pupils’ convenience, to know that standards have declined drastically.  I recall sitting in exams and scratching my head in front of questions that gave no quarter.  If you didn’t know the work, you were lost (and I still got 104% on my “A” Level mechanics paper).
Grade inflation is a confidence trick against pupils, universities and employers.  If more than a quarter of pupils get A grades, it is impossible to differentiate between the good and the excellent.  And we will never finally settle the argument whether standards have improved, or papers have got easier (though we may have a pretty good idea).
An alternative would be a system with fixed percentages — where the top 10% (say) got A grade, the next 20% got B, and so on.  Such a system would not give any meaningful comparisons over time — it would always and only be 10% with A grades — but at least universities would know how those candidates compared with the average of their year.  And they would know that with some certainty, give or take vagaries in the marking.
So would you rather:
(A)  Know with some confidence where a candidate stood with respect to the other half million children who took the exam that year? Or,
(B)  Have very little confidence in a spurious comparison of where this year’s lot stood in relation to previous years?
It’s a no-brainer.  Good information is better than bad information.  And some is better than none.
I was gestating this blog-piece in my mind over the last few days, and slightly taken aback to see that Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange (formerly of Open Europe) has a column in today’s paper with the same recommendation.  But he adds a new element — that for each pupil and each subject, there should be a percentile figure given that would place the pupil within the grading.  For example an “A” Grade pupil with a high mark such that only 6% were ahead of him would be marked 94%.  This too would be helpful for employers and universities sorting out the excellent from the good.  This in an excellent idea, but sadly won’t be taken up by a Labour government.  Why not?  Because they hate excellence.  That’s why.

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