The healthy upside to falling standards: GCSE and A-level exams probably are less tough to pass than in the old days. But that is no bad thing, argues Judith Judd

Click to follow
The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S GCSE results show a record number of passes in the top three grades. But reaction to this apparently good news has been mixed, especially in the wake of last week's record passes at A-level. The sceptics point out that if more pupils are passing these public examinations, we must be suffering a decline in standards. It is educational heresy to say so, but they are probably right: standards have almost certainly slipped a little. But how much should this be a cause for concern?

The recent rise in passes at both GCSE and A-level is indeed remarkable, even if yesterday's GCSE results indicate a levelling off. The A-level pass rate has risen from 70 per cent in 1983 to 83 per cent this year, after remaining on a plateau for 30 years. For GCSE the pass rate at grades A-C, the equivalent of the old O-level, is up 11 per cent in the six years since GCSE was introduced. The proportion of A grades awarded at GCSE has doubled since 1987.

But what this reveals about standards is far from straightforward. Critics of the GCSE say the exam boards should compare contemporary scripts with those of 20 years ago. Even if they did, we should not be much wiser. The numbers taking the exam and the nature of some subjects has changed so markedly that true comparison is impossible. In reality, standards are probably rising in some respects and falling in others.

In history, for instance, students now have to use sources and examine evidence: it is not enough to trot out the causes of the French Revolution. In spelling, grammar and punctuation standards have probably declined because, until recently, the prevailing educational wisdom urged teachers to concentrate instead on imagination and creativity. Inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education suggested this year that candidates with a limited grasp of spelling and grammar were gaining A and B grades at GCSE.

Part of the improvement in results is down to teachers and pupils working harder, spurred on by league tables and the Government's competitive educational climate. The introduction of GCSE, with its accompanying coursework, has motivated both students and teachers. However, the key to the explanation is the shift in purpose of these public examinations and the effect this change has had on the examiners.

Since the Fifties, the examination boards have had to cope with a revolution in education. Then, 3.1 per cent of 18-year-olds took A- level and a third of them failed. This rate was fixed - though never acknowledged - by the exam boards, representing the interests of an elitist university system. It was a method of restricting entry to higher education.

The same artificial barriers were placed before 16-year-olds. With fewer than a third of the age group passing five O-levels and entering the sixth form, the numbers available for higher education were limited. The system was based on the assumption that education should consist of a series of hurdles which only the fittest could surmount.

But the idea that a group of pupils was allowed to take an exam in the certain knowledge that a third of them would fail was educational nonsense. By the early Eighties the ceiling on A-level pass rates was abolished, as the emphasis of educational policy shifted towards expansion of higher education. The subsequent introduction of GCSE ended the divide between the less academic sheep (who did CSE) and the brighter goats (who did O-level).

Clearly, these huge changes have affected examiners' attitudes. The checks on GCSE and A-level are probably greater than those on any other exams in the world. Far from conspiring to boost grades, the exam boards monitor them with scrupulous attention.

But what constituted a grade A, when only 3 per cent of the age group took A-level, may look very different today. As Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University has suggested, examiners see papers by a much wider range of pupils. An answer which seemed good among a small, above-average total entry may look excellent among a much larger, more diverse group. Similarly, former O- level examiners now find themselves marking papers from all 16- year-olds. Given the inevitable subjectivity involved in awarding grades, it is hardly coincidental that the most spectacular improvements have been in arts subjects. It may be harder to do well in maths and science because they are less subjective.

Philip Evans, head of Bedford School and a chief examiner, has pointed to another way in which human frailty contributes to an upward drift in grades. He argues that examiners, faced every year with numerous borderline cases, tend to err on the side of generosity. The result, over a decade, is a significant rise in the pass rate.

Why is everyone so afraid to admit this? Surely the key question is whether a slippage in standards is an acceptable - even a necessary - corollary of increasing rates of participation in higher education? The present rise in grades has gone hand in hand with the realisation that Britain's place near the bottom of the international league table for the proportion of students in higher education is damaging both to individuals and the economy.

A-level remains an exam for the elite, taken by about one third of the age group; 15 per cent of those who start a course drop out and 17 per cent fail. The fact that a higher proportion of pupils are passing A-level with better grades is therefore less a source for concern than optimism. And an A grade at GCSE or A-level is still a fine achievement; for many students a pass is impressive.

Nostalgia for the days when English candidates answered questions on Milton, and French candidates were strong on grammar but weak on conversation, is misplaced. The inspectors' comments about grammar and spelling should certainly be heeded. But we should also recognise that today's A-levels are a way of recognising achievement, and for some a passport to employment. GCSE is not just a school-leaving certificate but a way of encouraging as many young people as possible to continue their education. If examiners have been subconsciously influenced by the change of climate then so much the better.

Does it matter if standards have shifted when the consequences make so much sense?