GCSE grade inflation? Teachers won't be to blame

Grade inflation is inevitable this year – but we're unlikely to see government defending teachers, says Kester Brewin

Kester Brewin

GCSEs and A levels 2021: 'Teachers aren't to blame for grade inflation'

So, Friday is coming. While most of the country is now looking to 19 July as their release date, for us in education, 18 June is the big one.

The long-hoped-for reopening of the economy has raised concerns about the pressure this will put on inflation. Figures released in the US last week saw the underlying rate as more than 5 per cent, which, translated into school speak, would require the deletion of more than a couple of expletives.

In parallel, with GCSE and A-level results being tallied, there’s already a head of steam building for red-top horror stories about grade inflation across our education system.

Part of me is quite relaxed about this, especially when Boris Johnson seems determined to award everyone in his Cabinet three A*s, despite having been sanctioned for unlawful activity, and with accusations flying around about ministers lying – all of whom defend themselves with the same line about “working really hard”. 

We’ve worked really hard, too, and so have our students. I’m just not sure that that’s going to cut it for us as a sector. So – given that we’re unlikely to be gifted an afternoon in the Downing Street Rose Garden to explain – we need to get our story straight. 

And the story is this: just as some inflation is an inevitable result of reopening an economy, so people need to understand that grade inflation cannot be avoided when you ask schools to assign grades.

GCSE and A level 2021: Why grade inflation cannot be avoided with TAGs

Having taught statistics for more than 20 years, I want to explain why.

Let’s be clear first, though: this has not been plain sailing. A Tes survey last week showed that 94 per cent of teachers reported problems coming to grade judgements, with half saying that they had experienced “lots of problems”.

This is not the fault of schools. We have been given all of the responsibility but very little in the way of timely guidance or clear grade descriptors. There has been no attempt to insist on consistency across different centres, and this creates stress, as everyone is left wondering if they are doing the right thing. 

One teacher likened it to “being told you have to climb to the top of Mount Everest using a route drawn on the back of a napkin” All I’d add to that is we’ve been sent up without any Sherpas either, and told to run to the summit because there’s so much else that needs catching up on.

We know that the task has been intensely difficult, and yet still expect that we will be attacked as a profession for unceremoniously hiking prices. So, when the presses start rolling and the hashtags start trending, we need to be prepared. 

Grade inflation: Raising our voices in teachers' defence

Here’s how my defence will go.

Firstly, we all know that when we run down our list of grades on a typical results day, there are always the twin emotions of seeing one student who has unexpectedly smashed it, and another who just seems to have had a bad day. And there’s no telling beforehand who is going to be who. 

Examinations are imperfect. They are a snapshot, a few hours’ assessment after years of work. For some that goes great – they've been hitting grade 7s going into the exam period, but come out with an 8. For others, they’ve been hitting those 7s but – for any number of reasons – end up coming out with a 6. 

As teachers who have worked with those two studentd for years, we know that they’ve both been working at a 7, but we’ve come to accept that snapshot as gospel. Great for one, tough on the other, but that’s just the way it is.

What this means is that the distribution of grade outcomes relative to the work that students have been evidencing in school is a bit like a bell curve. Some massively overperform (but a decreasing probability as the scale of this overperformance increases), and the same on the other side for underperformance.

Trouble is, when it comes to teachers awarding grades, this bell curve doesn’t apply. Why? Because we cannot randomly assign underperformance to a group of students. “Sorry Jack, we need a bit of balance, so you’ve been selected as the kid who was on for a 7 but ended up with a 6. Tough luck.”

So the whole negative side of the curve goes. And the inevitable outcome of this? Apparent grade inflation

No one has been corrupt. No one has changed the grade descriptors. No one has artificially enhanced a student’s performance. And yet the stats are bloated.

Will the Bank of England be accused of mishandling the economy when inflation figures rocket? No, because it will sit through radio interviews and explain the mechanics of the situation.

The question for our media – and a government that seemed determined to undermine teachers’ judgements at every turn – is whether they will allow those in education the same opportunities when the inevitable inflation figures come with results in August. 

After such a torrid 18 months, it is only fair to students and staff alike that they do – that they report without an agenda and listen to reason. Sadly, such sober journalism doesn’t sell papers.

So, be ready to raise your voices in every way that you can. We scaled Everest, and did it fair and square. If education secretary Gavin Williamson isn’t happy about the outcome, we need to plant our flag and – taking a line from his own playbook – shout from the summit: it wasn’t us at fault.

Kester Brewin has taught mathematics across a wide variety of schools for the past 20 years. He tweets as @kesterbrewin

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