Yesterday, Michael Gove announced plans to replace GCSEs with new, more rigorous qualifications in core academic subjects, called English Baccalaureate Certificates, from September 2015. There will be a single exam board for each subject, ending the competition between boards that has encouraged a race to the bottom. There will be no more modules, which encourage bite-size learning and teaching to the test. And there will be far less coursework, which favours pupils from better off backgrounds who can get help at home.
What Michael had to say must have been pretty dispiriting for young people who have worked hard for the grades they got this summer. Sometimes, however, politics is about telling people unpalatable truths.
I was in the first year to take GCSEs – we took one O Level in January and eight or nine GCSEs in June. Just three of my form got a grade A in the O Level; most - in some subjects, nearly all - got As at GCSE. I can say from personal experience that right from the start an A at GCSE was not equivalent to an A at O Level.
And they’ve been further devalued since then. Research by the University of Durham in 2006 found that GCSEs were a grade easier than a decade earlier.
The OECD’s assessment of the literacy, maths and science levels of 15 year-olds in education systems across the world, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, is further evidence that standards have slipped - between 2000 and 2009, we fell from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 27th in maths and 4th to 16th in science. And crucially this wasn’t because, although we were improving, other countries were improving faster - the OECD report found that, “results from PISA show no improvement in student learning outcomes”. In other words, more people were getting top grades every year but underlying attainment wasn’t improving – it was getting easier to get top grades.
Year 12 students often tell me that they find the transition to A Levels difficult – and that’s despite the fact that they too have been dumbed down (when I was on the Science & Technology Committee virtually ever university physics department we visited said that they now have to put-on catch up maths classes before undergraduates start their degrees).
Research by the CBI in 2011 found that 42% of businesses were dissatisfied with the literacy standards of school leavers and more than a third were dissatisfied with their numeracy standards.
And finally Labour’s own education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, was brave enough to admit in a debate in the House of Commons earlier this year that GCSEs have been devalued (“I absolutely acknowledge that there is grade inflation in the system”).
Unpalatable though it is for those who have worked hard for the qualifications they got this summer then, the evidence that our exam system has been dumbed down is overwhelming. Continuing to pretend otherwise would be a betrayal of future generations of students and damaging to our long term economic prospects - we live in a globalised world and if we want companies to create jobs here, we have to have some of the best educated young people in the world.
What would be wrong would be to go back to the previous system: one exam – the O Level – for academic pupils; and another – the CSE – for everyone else, which inevitably is seen as a poor relation. But that is not – repeat not – what Michael Gove is proposing. Indeed, he is doing quite the opposite, getting rid of the current division of the GCSE into foundation and higher tiers that condemns thousands of students to courses that explicitly place a cap on aspiration.
Nor is he solely concerned with academic qualifications. In the global economy, we need as many young people as possible to reach minimum standards in key subjects like English and maths but not everyone is going to go on to do A Levels and there needs to be a rigorous vocational alternative, which is not seen as second best. The Government is already taking action on this, implementing the recommendations of the excellent review of vocational education by Professor Alison Wolf.
Some people worry that making exams more rigorous will inevitably mean fewer pupils getting top grades, which will demotivate them. I believe the opposite. I think our young people are capable of much more than the system currently assumes and that they will respond to the bar being raised. The evidence from schools that have switched from GCSEs to the more rigorous iGCSEs supports this.
Finally, a word about the Labour Party’s response yesterday. It is the job of the Opposition to raise concerns but it was profoundly depressing to hear no words of welcome from their spokesman, Stephen Twigg, for the principle of making our exam system more rigorous. As I said, Stephen has accepted that the system has been dumbed down. If he doesn’t agree with the Government’s approach, what would he do about it? At least a few backbench Labour MPs, most notably Tristram Hunt, did welcome key elements of the package. It’s a shame that Labour’s frontbench doesn’t share his commitment to ensuring our young people are among the best educated in the world.
Update: On Thursday 27th September, I delivered a related speech discussing how Government strategy will ensure we get value for money in our education system for Reform.