Pupils and teachers sweat blood to get top grades

The GCSE results which came out yesterday - and congratulations to all pupils and their teachers - following hard on the heels of A-level results the week before, have yet again given the opportunity for pundits to sound off about grade inflation and league tables. At the risk of trespassing into this well-trodden territory, where almost everything that can be said has been, let me offer my own thoughts.

Top grades and pass grades have become more common year by year. But I think it is wrong, and ultimately insulting to the students and their teachers, to say that this is because the papers are evidently easier. Like every teacher, I see my pupils and their teachers sweat blood to get the best possible grades. Over my 25 years in teaching, I would say that they work as hard, and possibly harder, than they have ever done.

So what then explains the improvement in grades? The answer is the same at GCSE as at A-level. It is more targeted teaching on the precise requirements to achieve the better grades. There was nothing like this when I started teaching. We did not tell pupils: "This is how you need to answer this question to get an A*; this is what you need to achieve an A." We just got on with it in a rather vague way, and hoped that we were doing the right things.

Tracking and monitoring of pupils has changed beyond all recognition over that same 25-year period, which saw GCSEs replace O-levels in 1988 and criteria replace normative marking. Tracking of students, not widely understood among journalist commentators, has transformed the school experience, and has considerably improved the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

The increasing use of modules - which allow pupils to resit exams and to sit them in "bite-sized" chunks - has had a huge effect. Had pupils been able to re-sit papers, or parts of them, back in 1983, when I started teaching, the results would have been enormously better. Other factors too, such as coursework, explain the improvement, but the three factors above are the core reasons.

It is no more fair to blame the pupils for grade inflation than it is the athletes in Beijing. Students, like Olympians, are simply better prepared technically.

Which brings us on to league tables. Conservative and Labour governments have seen them as vital to improving education. Many who work in schools, however, see them as distorting what education is about, and see them as ultimately demeaning to children and to schools. I believe both positions are correct. How come?

Identifying precisely how schools perform - and specific departments and individual teachers can now be put under the microscope, too - has helped to point a powerful searchlight into areas of unsatisfactory performance, and to call the bluff of those schools, departments and teachers whose inadequate teaching has blunted the opportunity of children to achieve the best possible grades, thereby damaging their life prospects. The results analysis systems that have allowed this have similarly helped to identify the strong performers, and encouraged a culture of learning from the best.

Equally, league tables, and above all their crude interpretation by the press, have had several perverse effects. They have encouraged a notion that excellence in schooling can be equated precisely with excellence in academic results, when the biggest variable by far is the quality of the intake of pupils. They have focused schools overly much on teaching academic subjects, to the detriment of teaching all eight "aptitudes" that lie inherent within each child. And within the classroom, they have encouraged instruction for maximising grades rather than pure learning of a subject for its own sake.

The solution to both these conundrums must await a future column.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College, Berkshire.

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