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

  • @PhilipHensher

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.