All change

One of the problems of living beyond a certain age is an awareness that certain things happen more than once. This Thursday is another example of such an event. GCSE grade change from letters to numbers and there are more grades available. Well, I recall when the London University Board went the other way in 1963. Numbers in 1962; letter grades in 1963. Actually, a universal grading system across all Examination Boards didn’t materialise until well into the 1970s as candidate numbers taking the exams mushroomed, after comprehensive re-organisation did away with most of the selective systems of the 1944 Education Act. Part of the universal grading need may also have been to ensure comparability between GCE and CSE, the other examination that had sprung up.

Changing the grades from letters into numbers this week will undoubtedly upset Human Resource departments across the country as they will have to explain to those hiring youngsters from this year onwards that the old norms they are familiar with have changed. But, to an educated population that should be manageable. There is a useful table on Wkipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GCE_Ordinary_Level_(United_Kingdom) identify the changed and relative standards between grades.

A far bigger change took place in 1984 when norm referencing was replaced by criterion referencing. Previously, the percentage of top grades was limited and did not identify the ability of specific candidates. It was as if, of the 100 candidates taking their driving test today, only 10% could pass regardless of how well all candidates had been prepared. There may well be situations where that sort of ranking is appropriate, but the Secondary Examinations Council clearly recognised that public examinations were not one of them. One of the results of the change to the system was a more ruthless attitude to entry policies in some subjects, and wide differences between the percentage of A* and A grades between subjects, as this blog has pointed out in the past. Where schools only enter candidates that are expected to do well and need the subject for their next course of study, grades are likely to be higher on average. Where there is open access, there is likely to be less of a bunching at the top grades.

None of this is to denigrate in any way the work of students, teachers and their families in the preparation for the examination season. As ever, I pay tribute to those that have undergone the experience. Regular readers of this blog will also know that in the 1960s, I had to take English Language GCE some six times before achieving a pass. At that point I fully understood the purpose behind the motivational tale of Robert the Bruce watching a spider trying to spin its web.

So, as ever, my thanks to the education community for their work and to parents for their support, but above all my best wishes and thanks to the candidates that either already have or will receive their results this week. I hope you go on to a recognition that learning should a lifelong activity and not just a stage to be endured at school, even if how we measure it can be a movable feast.

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Trying to succeed is not failing

The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme has been looking at pupils stuck in the cycle of multiple resits as the government tries to ensure everyone, or as many young people as possible, reach the established milestone of Grades C in English and mathematics.

Now, I can see both sides of the debate on this issue after a lifetime in education and also from personal experience. The three years of my sixth form career was punctuated by the regular visit to the examination hall to try and pass English Language ‘O’ level. While my ‘A’ level studies were progressing well, and much better than my progress during the previous five years at secondary school, I carried the millstone around my neck of not having passed English Language ‘O’ level. In passing, regular readers of this blog will have noticed the longer-term effects of a poor start in our native tongue on my writing style.

Anyway, in the third year of the sixth form, I eventually passed, but only after nine months without any additional teaching. As a result, I was able to go to university, but my UCCA application, as it was in those ways, was heavily dependent upon universities and courses that didn’t require either Latin or English at ‘O’ level, since at that point I had neither. I would probably have ended up at LSE anyway – required neither – as I did, but the choice might have been wider.

I do understand the motivation of governments to ensure higher attainment in literacy and numeracy skills for our population as a whole, but I sat on a panel discussion in Abingdon on Friday night last week and listened to a FE lecturer calling for greater understanding of the range of examinations and functional skills we could accept from those for whom the traditional examination isn’t a good test. I have a lot of sympathy for that view. One size probably doesn’t fit all in this case. A range of skills test linked to the new investment in technical qualifications might be a helpful way forward.

So, my message to these young people forced to re-sit is, don’t give up and don’t regard it as an imposition. But, my message to government is, do consider the appropriate nature of the examination and one size and shape probably doesn’t fit all.

What we must never do is deter either young people or indeed learners of any age by making them think learning is just a chore to be endured. In later life, I have written many thousands of words and I am grateful that the school made me continue to re-take English language. Now, English literature was a different matter: that subject I passed first time.