Better results, worse exams?: Tim Brighouse finds honourable reasons for an improvement in GCSE and A-level results

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SUPPOSE that the success rates in last week's GCSE and A-level results had fallen. Can there be any doubt that Dr Rhodes Boyson, Tory MP, former education minister and tireless critic of contemporary schools, would have bemoaned the lack of effort and poor teaching that such a decline represented? In fact, the success rates rose, as they have done for the last four years, even though the numbers taking the exams also rose. But still Dr Boyson and that coterie of self-appointed protectors of standards are not satisfied. They allege that marking standards, as well as cricket balls, have been tampered with this summer.

So are exam standards falling or are GCSE and A-level candidates really doing better than their predecessors? Three factors have contributed to the improved results.

First, young people know that few jobs are available. It makes sense to study through the recession in the hope of better employment opportunities. Long gone, moreover, are the days when parents, on receipt of a poor end- of-term report, could say to their hapless teenager 'don't worry, I have had a word at the factory (or works, mine, shipyard or mill depending on the locality) and there's a job for you there on the line when you're 16'. More young people are trying harder.

Second, schools now have to publish detailed exam results and compete for parents who have been given more choice. So they are more conscious of their reputations. Heads and staff are less likely to dismiss poor performance with the unconvincing alibi that 'it was always a poor year-group'. They look for year-on-year improvement. Heads compare the performance of the same children in different subjects, so that they can pinpoint the 'weak' departments. Department heads are then asked to produce their own analyses of results. Last week, in such schools, most department heads were on site awaiting results, more worried about their students' performance than many of the young people themselves. One Staffordshire school has increased its percentage of pupils gaining five or more GCSE A to C grades from under 30 per cent to more than 70 per cent by applying this system over 10 years. The much-maligned local education authorities have also led the way. Shropshire, for example, provides information that enables heads to compare 16-plus performance with the children's abilities at 11.

Third, subject departments have become expert at spotting the particular examination boards and syllabuses that suit their students and teaching methods. Many teachers become examiners to improve their knowledge of exam requirements.

There are two further factors. Since 1988, the new GCSE's emphasis on coursework has encouraged students to work harder for longer than was the case when they could gamble all on their ability to recall information on a hot day in June. The better balance between coursework and final exam has enabled more teenagers to gain confidence in their ability to succeed. The fruits of this are showing at A-level.

Finally, at A-level, schools and colleges have become more adept at not entering candidates who will fail. They realise that pass rates (which do not take account of those who fail to complete courses) determine their reputation and the newspaper league tables.

Why, then, do parents and employers complain that improved exam results are not reflected in better literacy and numeracy among school-leavers? The first answer is that impressions of basic skills among the young are highly subjective. The second is that higher pass rates at GCSE and A-level do not necessarily show that students are better educated. They may simply show that they are better at passing exams.

This is where the misinformed cries of 'foul' and 'fiasco' camouflage more serious questions. A-level is a waste of time for thousands of young people. Over 40 per cent of those who start the courses fail the exam or, more likely, drop out during or after the first year. Despite the recession, we still have a lower staying-on rate than almost every other developed country.

We would be better off without the GCSE or A-level. Instead, we should assess 14-year-olds across all subjects and then offer a mix of academic and vocational courses leading to an Advanced Certificate of Education and Training, taken at school, college or work at 18, 19 or 20. Universities know that A-level is a poor predictor of degree performance; many of their best students come through other routes.

We should also recognise that the whole examination circus is extremely expensive. The new tests at 7, 11 and 14, together with GCSE, A-level and BTec (the main vocational exam), will cost upwards of pounds 200m a year. The Government is proposing regular teacher-appraisal and school inspections every four years. We could, therefore, scrap individual exam boards and allow schools, provided they met criteria laid down by a national body, to do their own marking and grading, with checks from external examiners, as universities do. The money saved could be diverted to extra books and staffing.

That however is all moonshine to the likes of Dr Boyson, the right-wing newspapers and other Jeremiahs, for it would deny them the annual pleasure of bemoaning falling standards whether pass rates go up or down.

The author is Professor of Education at Keele University.

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