The headline news this morning is that Ofqual, the exam regulator, believes that grade boundaries for English GCSE had to be changed because many teachers were being over-generous in their marking. This will no doubt lead to a very familiar round of teacher-bashing, with sloppy English teachers — many right-wing commentators ultimate bete noir — being blamed for a decline in morals, standards, GDP, crime on the streets etc…
However, look behind what Glenys Stacey, the chief regulator for Ofqual, says and you see that there’s a more complex story emerging. “It is very hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe there is widespread loss of integrity elsewhere,” Ms Stacey said. Ofqual had spoken to teachers who said they believed that “teachers elsewhere were abusing the system”, she added. “No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, their school and their career on the other.”
Yes. I would certainly agree with these last comments, although I would have to say that it’s a bit rich to accuse teachers of cheating when we were just following mark schemes provided to us by the exam boards — mark schemes approved by Ofqual! We have always, in every examiner’s meeting I’ve attended, been encouraged to mark positively; to see where a pupil is going right rather than wrong. I think this exhortation to mark positively is now a thing of the past, and it’s clear that we have to mark more negatively — this is undoubtedly due to political pressure in my view. You only have to look at the Education Secretary’s statements over the last few years to see that he feels the system is “dumbed down”, that there a “race to the bottom” and that we need to “fix” this situation. He doesn’t have to directly influence Ofqual and the exam boards at all for them to get the message that “grade inflation” needs to end: he’s been trumpeting this message to the rooftops! Furthermore, he has them all very frightened. Look what happened to the quango that he didn’t like, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, QCDA; it was shut down. Gove wields tremendous power over these bodies — and he, and they, know this. No wonder they’re all falling over themselves to keep him happy; their careers and livelihoods are at stake.
Nevertheless, I detect a sceptical note in Ofqual’s report. Behind the sound-byte that Ofqual knew the media would go for, is the more subversive observation that the league tables are corrupting all of us — and, by implication, not raising standards. As Stacey points out, teachers are in an impossible situation of trying to keep their school happy, some of which are threatened with closure if they don’t meet certain benchmarks, or maintaining their integrity. Yes, this has led to “over-teaching” in my view — but this has been, until now, sanctioned by the powers-that-be. And I can’t see it changing either with the new Gove levels. Teachers will merely be forced to drill their children to pass three hour exams. At least with coursework, pupils have the chance to do their own research and develop some independent learning skills. As Patricia Broadfoot and Warwick Mansell have pointed out a system which is based on exams just doesn’t deliver a quality education. That said, a system which has coursework but also has school league tables and the draconian inspection regime we have, doesn’t deliver either; it leads to “cover-ups”, “cock-ups”, and superficial learning.
Instead of involving teachers in a constructive dialogue about all of this, the government has chosen to be very antagonistic, blaming teachers all along the way. As Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on the Finnish system, points out we have a GERM, (Global Education Reform Movement) which is infecting our schools systems today, which rob teachers of genuine autonomy, focus relentlessly upon ineffective testing systems, league tables, and punitive inspection regimes. Our teachers and pupils are currently victims of GERM, as Glenys Stacey’s report actually shows, when you look behind the grandstanding. It’s led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a killing off of the creativity in England, as a recent article by Henry Stewart on the Local School Network shows.
As a first step, the government needs to disband GCSEs and have a proper conversation with the teaching profession about instituting a meaningful high-school diploma.