With the red meat of reform largely complete, at least for this parliament, champions of education reform now need to brace themselves for the next challenge: surviving any backlash against the fall in attainment necessary to correct grade inflation.
Today, thousands of teenagers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are anxiously awaiting their GCSE results. For the pupils, it’s a time of nervous anticipation. For the rest of the education sector, on the other hand, it’s a time for pre-spin and getting your hits in early.
There has apparently been – or will be, since actual results aren’t out at the time of writing – a serious fall in the number of people getting good grades in English. It could be so severe that exam boards have reportedly been begging school governors not to fire head teachers over it.
From reading the papers, there appear to be two elements at play here. First, English has been caught up in the Coalition’s reforms to the GCSE. Speaking and listening no longer count towards a pupil’s grade, exams have been bumped up from 40 per cent of the final score to 60 per cent, and spring exam sittings have been stopped. Combined with the fact that only a pupil’s first grade will count towards a school’s league table position, and there are clearly good reasons to expect a fall in attainment.
In itself, this is neither unexpected nor undesirable – bearing down on grade inflation was a critical justification for these reforms. Yet according to the papers, there also seems to be some evidence that English has been subject to atypically harsh marking. To quote one head teacher: “English is just perverse this year.”
Again, this is something that can sometimes happen. I had one of my A Levels remarked by almost an entire grade. Occasionally the examination process produces results which, after consideration, are too harsh. But given the fear that a backlash against falling attainment has struck in a generation of education secretaries, the Government ought to take care that a freak occurrence of hyper-severe marking (if such has occurred) is not blamed in the public imagination on the GCSE reforms.
To see how potentially dangerous this can be, you only need to think back to the situation that prevailed before Michael Gove came along.
When I was studying I was a regular contributor to a student media site called The Student Journals where, like the student paper, my unofficial role was to be ‘the Tory’. Given TSJ’s understandable education focus (they’ve even made a manic little gif. about ‘GCSE chaos!’), that meant that I was very often the court-appointed counsel for Michael Gove.
In the first of several pieces defending education reform, I compared the education secretaries of the New Labour years to Harold Wilson’s famous devaluation pledge: the GCSE may be declining on every international measure, but that doesn’t mean that the qualification on your CV, proud pupil, has been devalued.
Like Wilson, the education secretaries were trapped between immutable international realities and intense domestic political pressure. The educational establishment – the ‘Blob’ – dragooned generations of pupils into their front ranks and “talking children down” became a charge so toxic that education secretary after secretary ducked any serious confrontation over school reform.
The Coalition has broken that trend, faced down an outraged establishment and laid the foundations for fundamental reform. But as the effects of that reform start to be felt, we need to be more sensitive than ever about being cast as the cruel enemies of hard-working young people.
Every parent in the country, or near enough, might be in favour of cracking down on grade inflation. But when it’s your child who was predicted the A* but got the B, who feels cheated and who may even be forced to reconsider things like A Level choices, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why it might be tempting to blame the workings of that horrid spectre, Michael Gove – especially if the education establishment is queueing up to do so.
Education reform has been one of the Coalition’s most high profile campaigns, and this is the last set of exams before next year’s general election. This, rather than abstract notions like academy status, will be uppermost in the minds of untold thousands of parents when they pass judgement on education policy in May. A misstep here could be disastrous.