In the mid-nineties, Ofsted published a series of short reports on excellent work in primary and middle schools, and I arranged to visit one, Clayton Middle School (now closed) on behalf of the Times Educational Supplement. The school had beaten the problem faced by many middle schools, of ensuring rapid progress across the primary/secondary divide, particularly in English, where it was making excellent use of non-fiction as well as fiction to develop children’s language.

I arrived expecting a day of pure joy, and the teaching confirmed all that Ofsted had said about the school. The head, though, was unhappy. His governors were furious with him for “putting too much emphasis on the children’s achievements”, and he regretted having allowed the school to be included in the report.

The HMI responsible for the report was astonished. “They’re not going to get anywhere with thinking like that,” he said.  The governors, though, knew exactly what they were doing. By maximising children’s achievements, the school was jeopardising the equalities agenda. This is the same argument advanced by Professors Whitty and Mortimore, both former directors of the London Institute of Education, discussed in my last posting.

Improving schools and boosting achievement is not “progressive”, as those who are already achieving more will increase the gap. The grip of this perverse thinking on education and teacher training should not be underestimated – Professor Whitty, for example, sits on the Ofsted Board and until recently was in charge of the education advisory board of the British Council. One of Professor Mortimore’s recent Guardian pieces had the title “More Opportunity in Education Still Does Not Make It Fair”.

The progressives have worked long and hard to build their castle, and will resist the process of dismantling it to the last round and the last man. So, the first reforms for A level, with the content set by Universities and not the government, are attacked for separating the practical, “whizz-bang” element from science examinations, ostensibly because this downgrades practical work, but in fact because the corruption of practicals, like that of other coursework, led to marks being clustered around the top of the scale and so made the exams more democratic. (See Boarding School Beak.)

The same happened with oral English tests, particularly around the C/D borderline, so that the C grade can almost be taken as an indication that a person has a problem with writing.

The coursework fraud has now penetrated the universities. The latest scam is to use a “proofreading service”, which amounts to having someone else do the work.  It should be shut down. The Telegraph reported two years ago that some universities had completely abandoned final examinations in favour of coursework, with predictable consequences.

Restoring standards in this context is extremely difficult. In languages, where dumbing down has not quite kept pace with that in other subjects, A level students feel penalised in relation to those taking other subjects and the catastrophic fall in A level entry continues, so that German is down to just over 3,000 entries this year, with serious knock-on effects for universities and business. This decline coincides with major errors in teaching perpetrated by Labour and its acolytes since 1965, which will only begin to be corrected once the new National Curriculum starts in September.

Setting proper standards without being unfair to current candidates is a balancing act throughout the system, and Ofqual has launched a consultation on how this should be achieved at GCSE.

Here are my suggestions.

1. Use all sources of evidence to find what the highest-attaining sixteen year olds can achieve with good teaching, and use this to set standards for A and A*.

2. Establish a baseline of competence for each subject, and use this to set the standards for the C grade, so that it once more represents a clear pass.

3. Grades below C should be restricted to D and E.  D would be a near miss, and E should indicate worthwhile work. It could be broad enough to reflect the efforts of people with significant learning difficulties who might currently receive F or G grades. The idea that F is a pass has never commanded public credibility.

4. At all stages, the expected standards should be published and backed by examples. It’s the standards that count, and not the percentage of pupils achieving them.

27 comments for: John Bald: Restoring exam standards in a way that is fair will not be easy

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