The publication today of this summer's GCSE results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland is expected to show another increase in the number of children who have achieved decent grades. Those who have done well deserve warm congratulations. But there is another, less encouraging, side to the story. The weight of evidence suggesting that the public exam system, as a whole, has become corrupted is now impossible to ignore. A report by the think-tank Civitas is the latest study to suggest a growing number of schools are "gaming" the exam system in order to flatter their performance in Government-published statistics.
This is done in a number of ways. The simplest is for a school to omit to enter a student for an exam if they are unlikely to get an A-C grade (which has become the benchmark of a "good" GCSE). Another is "teaching to the test", where teachers relentlessly drill students on how to spot exam questions and improve their scores (even if this impedes their wider understanding of a subject).
But another gaming method has been creeping in too. Students judged less likely to do well in traditional academic disciplines are being encouraged to sit for vocational qualifications instead. Such qualifications, which are awarded the equivalent "points" of four GCSES by the Government, make an institution look more impressive when the statistics of each school's performance are published centrally.
The problem is that this trend is being driven by the interests of schools, rather than their students. Civitas argues that, if it continues, the old grammar/secondary modern divide could be resurrected as schools in poorer areas increasingly specialise in "easier" vocational qualifications and the richer ones focus on academic subjects.
So why are schools going down this road? One reason is likely to be their lack of independence, which has diminished teachers' self-confidence and encouraged them to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to raw exam results. But the main driving force behind the malign trend is the very fact that details of each school's overall exam performance are published annually by the Department for Education and turned into league tables by the media. While league tables exist, there will always be a strong incentive for schools to manipulate the system. Attempts to make the system fairer on schools that serve deprived areas by awarding them extra credit for "improving" a student's predicted exam results have merely created more educationally-distorting incentives.
The Education Secretary, Ed Balls, is right to defend the right of parents to access information about how the schools in their area perform. We cannot go back to the days when it was deemed impertinent for people to request such information. Yet Mr Balls makes a mistake in jumping from this laudable concern to empower parents, to a justification for the existence of league tables and all their malign influence on educational priorities.
A middle way needs to be found. One avenue the Department for Education might explore is to instruct each school to publish its exam results online and to post them with the local council. That might help discourage the crude ranking of every school in the country. It would also help enormously if ministers ceased to demand that schools meet ever-changing, centrally-imposed targets, for exam performance. As so often in the public services, ministers would witness better results if they stopped trying to micro-manage their delivery.