Bernard Trafford: “Ignore the GCSE fuss, bank the grades and move on”

22nd August 2013 at 14:52

Dr Bernard Trafford, headteacher of the independent Newcastle Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, writes:

Exams are in a state of turbulence. Grade inflation’s rampant. Independent schools choose the tougher International GCSE alternative. Gove promises to reform GCSE. Toughening up on top grades has halted the rot. IGCSE is easier. Independent schools slam Gove’s indecent haste.

Such blatantly contradictory statements (and more) have dominated the media recently. What are schools, students and parents, to make of them?

My answer? On GCSE day particularly, little or nothing. Ignore the fuss. Bank the results. Move on.

I’m not being flippant. This feeding frenzy is deeply unhelpful to candidates who must be assured that their qualifications still have currency. They do.

Moreover, with AS set to disappear, GCSEs will become the only certified qualification for universities to base their selection process on.

Do falling A* rates conversely guarantee standards? I don’t buy that. The steady rise in A*s over time was not “dumbing down”. Schools and students work harder than ever year on year: they get better at working the exam system. So grades rise. Knocking all that endeavour in an attempt to sound tough is a cheap and mean trick.

Will this year’s tiny fall in top GCSE grades rule thousands of kids out of applying for medical school or Oxbridge? No. Candidates won’t suddenly find themselves with two A*s instead of the required eight: but they might drop to seven, so universities should appreciate the ground’s shifted, and be flexible. If they don’t, the various heads’ associations (ASCL, NAHT, HMC, GSA) should lean on them.

In the end exam structures are only as good as the people running them: there aren’t enough good people in our bloated, sprawling system that continues to over-examine young people. So we’ll keep encountering problems.

I never believed in structures anyway: it’s the people who count.

The only solution is to trust schools and students. The profession must kick doors down to gain the leading say in exam reforms; challenge pundits and policy-makers when they strut and spout rubbish; take on exam boards and Ofqual when results aren’t right; and tackle universities when they’re out of order.

Not much to do then! Congratulations on another great year.


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