Philip Hensher: Abolish all grades. Only then will GCSEs be useful for pupils and employers


Related Topics

One of the interesting things about the past week, as GCSE and A-level grades fell for the first time in more than two decades, was hearing outraged commentators saying that educational attainment shouldn't be subject to political manipulation. I quite agree. But what the hell do they think has been happening over the past quarter of a century?

Between 1988 and 2011, GCSE A grades rose by a factor of almost three, while the proportion of Cs increased by more than 60 per cent. Clearly, a political decision was taken to draw ever-increasing numbers further into education, and generous grades were an important part of the strategy.

Have the numbers attaining the best marks tripled in the past 23 years? Have those attaining a good accomplishment risen by 60 per cent? Is there any change in the population which has ever been reported as a consistent rise, year on year, without any change in direction, over 23 years? If you ask some educational professionals, the answer is yes, and it doesn't seem unlikely. If you ask employers about literacy and numeracy skills, you get rather a different answer.

There has been an exchange of opinion; readers of newspapers have compared the rise in the number of gold medals won at the Olympics with the improvement in exam marks. Are we to suppose, the letters ask, that sports have got easier, as people claim with GCSEs and A-levels? Well, very amusing. But if the number of gold medals awarded at the Olympics grew in number by a factor of three; if everybody competing was much more likely to win one; if the numbers winning gold medals rose consistently at every single Olympic games 23 successive times – then perhaps we could make this comparison.

What do we want from school exams? Easy. We want them to demonstrate to pupils where their strengths and weaknesses might lie. I knew I was objectively better at language-based subjects than science-based, because I got an A at those and a C at the others. Now that good students routinely get the top grade in everything, how are they to know that?

We want exams to demonstrate to the world what a student's skills and attainments are. So someone who attains a grade which indicates a good pass at GCSE English ought to be able, say, to read a book and write a paragraph correctly, at the very least. That is currently not the case.

And we want them to provide a scale of comparison to show where the pupil stands. To be honest, I think the debate about whether standards have declined is an interesting but not a useful one. There are not many occasions when a student who takes a GCSE in English in 2012 is going to be compared directly with someone who took an O-level in the same subject in 1981. Having looked at both papers, I would say that the GCSE is a lot easier. But I can't think of any occasion when that would matter, or when anyone would want to compare his A grade with my A grade. What matters is the generosity with which A grades are handed out. We want to compare pupils from the same cohort. But that is often impossible at present.

There is a simple answer. Grades should be abolished, and a transcript of marks published. We would know the difference between good pupils then, and what a C grade actually means. And to people who say "But what about the feelings of students who have worked so hard?", we can only say that some other students worked harder, or are more intelligent. They will have to find other sources of consolation. Life is a little bit like that.

They also serve who stand and wait

Last week, I wrote about the absurd levels of staffing on the railways. One example I chose was the fact that the trolley in first class on First Great Western is pushed by two people. An outraged reader, a Mr Derek Heath, who I presume has nothing to do with the railways himself, writes to say: "The second man… working the tea trolley, is there to ensure their colleague is not on the fiddle, by pocketing the cash, or that they are mutual protection for each other in case of a possible robbery."

Oh, yeah, those tea-trolley robberies. And Mr Heath may have discovered a brilliant solution to Britain's unemployment problem. Every till in every retail outlet, it is clear, must be staffed by two people, the second there to ensure the other is not on the fiddle. One question: what happens if they conspire together to split the loot? A still better solution surely arises – appoint a third person to walk along behind.

I wouldn't usually express my amusement about a reader's letter in this way, but it seems absolutely obvious to me that the railways are being run according to Mr Heath's principles, and all those people standing around are there just in case a robbery or some act of God intervenes. At which point, of course, they would be perfectly useless, but the good intention was there.

Look at me, I'm famous!

An ingenious New Yorker, Brett Cohen, decided to see if he could become a celebrity. He dyed himself orange, put on sunglasses, and walked around Times Square for a while with a cameraman and two bodyguards. The results were astounding, and may be seen in his very entertaining video.

One man said he was "awesome". Another said he had very much enjoyed his first single. Others thought he had been great in Spider-Man. Hundreds of people formed a mob taking photographs of Mr Cohen. Screaming broke out.

I wonder if this splendid jape could be repeated in London. The video made New Yorkers, very surprisingly, look highly trusting and open. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever seen a genuinely famous person walk down a London street and not be followed by the comments "Who the hell's that?" or "Who does he think he is?". Mr Cohen, now, ironically, genuinely rather famous, should come over here and see if the same trick works in a different culture of disrespect and disbelief.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape