Opinion: social class and the birth rate influence exam grades

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A-level and GCSE examination results increasingly attract media interest when they are released each August. Pundits tend to come up with all sorts of spectacular reasons why the results are better, or worse, or the same as the year before. This year has been no exception. The A- level pass rate was up slightly, so there was a call for an inquiry into the standard of A-level examinations on the assumption that it might be getting easier. Meanwhile, the GCSE results were very similar to those for 1994, a phenomenon which was described as "a slowing down in the improvement of standards at GCSE", leading some pundits to blame schools, teachers and the Government's education policy.

All this can be very disheartening for pupils, along with their teachers and parents. What is important to them is their own results and all the work that has gone into achieving them. Neither GCSE nor A-level examinations are perfect, but they are certainly both highly rigorous examinations, which are closely monitored and controlled by the examination boards and government agencies such as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and Ofsted. For this reason, the results have a recognised value in assessing the achievements of individual pupils.

One of the many things that public examination grades are not so good at is acting as some kind of simple thermometer of national educational standards. Average results will go up and down, from one year to the next, as a result of a complex set of factors and circumstances. One fairly significant, but rarely mentioned, issue in all of this relates to the demographic changes that occur between those entering from one year to the next. The OPCS birth statistics for the period from 1972 to 1979, when most of the past eight cohorts of GCSE candidates were born, show that this was a time of considerable change in the UK's population. A decline which started in the mid-1960s in the national birth rate was predominant in social classes III, IV and V. Year on year this has caused the proportion of children from middle-class family backgrounds (social classes I and II) to increase in each of the first seven GCSE cohorts from 1988-1994 (see below). By 1979, when most of this year's GCSE candidates were born, this effect had started to reach a plateau, as a result of an upturn in the birth rate in social classes III, IV and V after the trough in 1977. It is hard to believe it is a coincidence that these demographic changes have closely mirrored the growth rate in the proportion of candidates obtaining GCSE grades A-C, which rose consistently for seven years from its original level of 42.5 per cent in 1988 to last year's level of 52.6 per cent, and has now plateaued.

Clearly such demographic changes are not the only factor influencing examination grades, but those who ignore them do so at their peril. It is well established that children from social class I and II backgrounds, on average, do better in examinations, stay in education longer, and are four times as likely to apply for and complete university degrees. Thus it is as unwise to draw simple conclusions from comparisons of annual results as it is to draw them from comparisons between different secondary schools with different catchment areas.

Average national GCSE results may continue to plateau, or even drop, over the next few years. That will tell us very little about the success of attempts to bring about significant changes in the effectiveness of schools. Sensible interpretations of the results will require a close scrutiny of the advances made within specific year groups within specific schools. Educational improvements are hard won and result from sustained investments in schools, in the morale and conditions provided for pupils and teachers, and in raised expectations and motivation among pupils, supported by their parents, families and schools.

Those who seek to sensationalise debates about standards in education can easily damage the morale of teachers, parents and pupils. What is needed is more emphasis on the continuing professional development of teachers, on school improvement and on enhanced pupil learning and development. Exam results tend to make the headlines in August, but education goes on all year in schools and homes around the country, where there will continue to be a need for encouragement, praise and the celebration of educational successes.


The author is Dean of the Faculty of Education, University of Nottingham.