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By Tim Montgomerie
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The writer Marvin Olasky described it as feed-and-forget compassion. It's superficially kind but it's ultimately stingy. One example of feed-and-forget compassion is when a parent gives their children toys but not time. When a society gives welfare to its poor rather than work; dependence rather than independence. And then there's an all-must-win-prizes schools system that 'awards' its children soft grades rather than meaningful qualifications and skills that will allow them to prosper in adulthood.

Michael Gove has soft grades in his mind today. Speaking to OfQual he sets out a number of steps towards a more honest exams system. He says that there should be years when fewer children get top exam results and that when that happens we will have a more honest exam system.


First of all in his speech he set out a number of evidences of grade inflation:

  • "More and more institutions are being forced," he notes, "to offer remedial courses for pupils who show up unprepared for the rigours of further study… [The Institute of Physics'] recent report finds strong criticism from Universities about the mathematical knowledge of physics undergraduates – despite such students generally being amongst the most highly-qualified undergraduates."
  • The Education Secretary also says: "Analysis of 3,000 secondary pupils’ performance in algebra, ratio and decimals tests conducted in 2008 suggests that there has been little overall change in maths attainment since 1976. Yet the same time, exam pass rates have risen dramatically."
  • "A survey by the British Chambers of Commerce found that over half of small businesses think the education system is failing to produce individuals with adequate skills needed for work."

Mr Gove also draws attention to the fact that we are falling behind our global competitors:

"OECD figures show that our 15-year-olds are about two years behind Shanghai’s – and if we improved our performance to Shanghai’s level it would have an equivalent effect to improving the percentage of children in maintained schools getting 5 A*-C GCSEs (including English and Maths) from about 55% to about 77%, or an equivalent to raising average performance from 8 Cs at GCSE to 3As and 5Bs."

Gove concluded with these words (my emphasis):

"Finally, a warning: if the changes that I make – or that I want to make – win some favour with the audience in this room, and we’re able to collectively move together, one thing may happen in English education. Something unprecedented. Potentially, some might say, revolutionary. We might have a year – even a year while I’m still in office – where GCSE and A level results dip. Where fewer students get A stars, fewer students get As. When that happens, there will be an inevitable pointing of fingers – mostly, in my direction: ‘You’re presiding over a decline, you’re presiding over failure.’ Well, I won’t believe that’s true for a moment. I believe that our children and our teachers will be doing better than ever. But I think that if our exams system is accurate, precise, demanding and world-class, there will be years where performance will dip, as well as rise. And it’s far, far, far better if we’re honest with our children, honest with ourselves as a nation, and have an exams system that is world beating and respected everywhere. Because what we want an exams system to do, in the word of my old Scots mother, is ‘tell the truth, and shame the devil.’"

24 comments for: Michael Gove looks forward to the years when exam results get worse (but more honest)

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