Should examinations be harder? Is it fair to the current cohort of students to raise standards so that they miss out on pass grades? These are the questions currently gripping our education system.
English and Welsh students take their GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) aged 16. The results are vital, for both students and their schools. Job offers often require a certain grade in the most important subjects (English and Mathematics) while school league tables are predicated on how pupils do, particularly in these same two subjects.
So there was uproar last week when results were published and it was revealed that the pass grade for English had been raised. The proportion of GCSEs awarded an A*-C grade fell for the first time in 24 years, from 69.8 per cent to 69.4 per cent, while English language results fell 1.5 points to 63.9 per cent and English literature 2.1 points to 76.3. These falls affected thousands of young people, especially as they clustered around the vital D/C boundary (where a C is a pass and a D, a fail).
Angry headteachers claimed that exam boards had raised grade boundaries in English halfway through the year amid fears that too many children were going to get a C. On Thursday the Centre of Education and Employment Research suggested that 10,300 students who received a D (or lower) would have got at least a C if they had scored the same mark last summer. There are also talks of legal challenges, with thousands of students affected.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, said that the fall was free from political pressure, but others considered that disingenuous. Mr Gove has made it clear that he wants a more rigorous system and that he dislikes grade inflation.
The education secretary is exceptionally bright. He comes from a disadvantaged background, adopted by working class parents as a baby, then winning a scholarship to a local, fee-paying school, and studying English at Oxford. He appears to feel that his experience shows that everyone can achieve and this means he sets high aspirations and targets, what he calls a "focus on standards". It also means that he is determined to change the English education system (the Scottish one is run separately from Edinburgh), and fast.
But Mr Gove's experiences are not universal and he doesn't seem to realise that not everyone can achieve as he has. He and his circle criticise any who point this out as being a "prisoner" of a culture of low aspirations (This was the education secretary's response to a statistical analysis done by the Financial Times' Christopher Cook, who seemed to show that a possible change to GCSEs might result in a social and geographical divide.) It's a tricky charge to answer, especially as education here seems to have become so ideologically driven, so "us and them".
As is the case in the US, we have endless handwringing about our apparently "poor" education system. Employers claim that it is not fit for purpose, while politicians point to our performance in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables, which seem to show us as merely average. This, as I'm sure you'll understand is not good enough. The British feel we should always be on top, not mid-table.
The changes in GCSEs and more rigorous A (advanced) level exams at 18 are ways to address this, although most research suggests that what's actually vital is to tackle issues much earlier, in the early years of school, and particularly before the achievement gap widens too much.
But there are major problems, not least because the PISA data is not as robust as some may think. This may be affecting educational thinking in the United States as much as in the UK.
The PISA survey and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) are two highly respected cross-national studies of pupil achievement. They have been designed to study how different countries' educational systems perform against one another, and so they are extremely political sensitive.
However, the ex British schools minister Jim Knight agrees now that there are problems with using this data to drive change. Meanwhile a study by John Jerrim from the Institute of Education suggests that there are flaws in using either study to develop educational policy. Some of these (such as using alphabetical order to rank countries with the same scores) are clear even to non-data driven people like me. Why do we never hear that one of the reasons for a fall in our league position is because, as Jerrim points out, "the total number of countries in PISA has, however, risen from 43 in 2000 to 65 in 2009 (a large number of non-OECD members have been added). The implication of this is that one of the reasons England has "plummeted" down the international rankings is because more countries are now included (i.e. it is easier to come tenth in a league of 43 than it is in a league of 65)."?
When I started writing about education for the Times, I was told that it didn't matter that I wasn't an expert. It was the parental view which was important on my new education blog.
Since then, I have become more and more involved, finding out the views of students, teachers, politicians and, of course, parents. And I have become more, not less, frustrated by our education system, by the very large part class plays in it (we have a very large fee paying sector which performs extremely well, but also removes able children and their parents from our state system) not to mention ideology.
I have realised how statistics can be used to prove apparently different sides of an argument and how easy it is to pit those on the right and left against each other. But I'm convinced that, despite the endless arguments and disagreements, most people, on both sides, want the same thing. They want a good education for their child, and others. They want a robust system, with high aspirations, but with alternatives for those who may be stronger in practical rather than academic skills. And they want a government which realises that a C grade for some can be as much of an achievement as an A.
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