Why GCSE and A level grade inflation doesn’t matter much

The second bout of pushmepullyou debate over exam results started today with the publication of the latest GCSE results. For the 23rd year running, the proportion of entries receiving a grade A*-C has risen, now reaching 69.8%. On the one hand, happy candidates and politicians have been celebrating the hard work that led to those grades. On the other, curmudgeons who spent last week alternating between fulminating over the news media’s keenness to show attractive blonde girls jumping up and down after getting their A level grades and moaning about how the 97.8% A*-E pass rate meant that the qualification was worthless.

I don’t really think there is a lot to be gained by long term comparisons between the grades achieved in long-separated years. I’m not going to spend tonight slapping my back over the statistical evidence that might show that I did the hardest ever GCSEs (being in the first cohort in 1988) or beating myself up over the possibility that the GCSEs I did weren’t as hard as the 4 O levels I did the year before (why oh why couldn’t they have let me take “easy” GCSE RE instead of doing the O level and besmirching my CV with a rogue C grade?). Both GCSEs and A levels have changed in their role in the intervening years. When GCSEs were introduced to replace O levels and CSEs the average level of attainment was represented by the F Grade which was intended to reflect a CSE 3 or 4. Prior to 1988, CSE 2s and 3s were adequate for entry into skilled trade apprenticeships and other real work and O levels were qualifications aimed at those with higher academic ability levels as possibly the last school exams they would do.

It is quite different now. As more children are encouraged or effectively forced into staying in full time education, GCSEs are less and less an end in themselves but more the entry point into further academic study. If there is a target of getting half the population to have experienced Higher Education (ie post-A Level), it is only logical that those who in 1988 would have been targeted to receive GCSEs at around Grade E or F should be able to get GCSE grades that fit them for doing A Levels and beyond. A C grade today is not comparable with a C grade in 1988 because the rationale behind the setting and marking of the exams is so very different.

This has a similar effect at A Level. If around half of school children are expected to aim towards Higher Education, that means they will need to have the exams that qualify them for Higher Education. This fits neatly with the near 100% pass rate at A Level on the basis of more than half of all children staying on in the sixth form. Those getting D and E grades at A Level now would have been expected not to have come near to 5 GCSEs at A-C in 1988 just by reference to their position in any table of academic ability. However, someone who has just done their GCSEs or A levels this year is very unlikely to come up in competition against me for any job, just as I am unlikely to be competing with say, Toby Young with his BCC at A Level in 1983. So, in reality, the only time the vast majority will compare intergenerational exam results is this one week in the year when it makes for a story in the media. The stuff we were able to do at the time and since because of or despite the qualification each got makes much more difference in practice. There are of course some exceptions – such as those looking to start degrees now but did their school exams 10-15 or more years ago or those who have been (ludicrously) refused promotion after many years of experience by dim-witted HR policies designating roles as graduate-only. But these are outliers which can be dealt with.

Now, there are bad things about this. Particularly bad is the fact that it pushes children who may not be particularly academically inclined into staying in academically-focused education until 18 and increasingly 21. As studying for a degree is so expensive, this also burdens people who a generation ago would have been willing and able to find good work and careers from the age of 16 into debt in order to take jobs that in reality they could quite easily have managed without that additional education. While there will have been some children who have been given the opportunity to shine or develop academic interests which in the past would have been more closed by just getting on with working and making a living, I think these will be in the minority. The inflation in the level of qualification that employers can now demand for entry level jobs also makes it much harder for those who decide to drop out of education at 16 with few qualifications to get into work. Whereas in the past they would be competing with people around their own age who had perhaps a few more GCSEs or at slightly better grades, now they are facing competition from people who are 5 years older, desperate to pay off student debts and with apparently good qualifications which at the very least make them look like they have applied themselves.

What is more important than the grades themselves and how they compare to the grades of the past is whether the education received by all students, particularly the forgotten minority who got few or no GCSEs at grade C or above, is adequate and appropriate to give them a chance of making something of their lives after school. Very little is ever heard about the quality of education given to those “at the bottom” but it is unlikely to be very positive when the CBI and others complain about the poor literacy, numeracy and general skills of graduates.

Rather than whining about how exams were properly hard “in our day” or berating the unemployable “scum” who didn’t manage even those “easier” GCSEs, it would be better to look at how to provide useful and good quality education to those who aren’t today jumping for joy at the 15 GCSE A*s they just got in the post. Something that is certain though is that just making the exams easier and the marking more lenient will not solve that problem any more than it has for those who were hardworking and fortunate enough to have got the grades they needed in the last week.


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