Seasonal silliness

August starts with grouse shooting. By the third week it is also open season on the GCSE. This is natural enough. With about 95 per cent of 15-year-olds entered for these exams every year, there can hardly be a listener, viewer or newspaper reader in the country who does not have some kind of interest in the results.

It is not surprising, then, if the media, pressure groups and lobbyists regularly latch on to this heightened public interest with predictable worries about grade inflation and falling standards - just as other silly season stories about record droughts or washed-out holidays begin to pall.

The publication of GCSE results is of course awaited with tense anticipation - whether hopeful or anguished - by those who sweated over them in June, and those teachers and parents who fretted beside them. But for all the public attention focused on the release of the results, it is not, in fact, a particularly auspicious moment to speculate on standards and trends - and not just because to do so seems to belittle the efforts of teachers and pupils.

The provisional statistics of results, published this week, give broad information on overall entries, subjects, and pass rates. But otherwise they offer little indication of exactly who obtained what, where and in what combinations. This did not prevent us this week being treated to tendentious media speculation about schools entering fewer candidates in order to improve their league table showings.

The evidence, such as it is, did not show this. GCSE entries are not falling as fast as the rate at which the population of 15-year-olds is shrinking - and are therefore rising per candidate.

But since the figures include those taking GCSEs in sixth forms and further education, it is not possible to distinguish the numbers of school entries, let alone the reasons for them. The trend towards vocational qualifications rather than GCSE retakes could even be masking an increase in school entries to improve league table positions.

Since all pupils in the relevant age group are counted against school performance scores - whether or not they are entered for examinations - it is hard to see how not entering them would improve a school's showing, though there could be other reasons for not doing so.

More detailed analyses of last August's results show that pupils take seven or eight subjects on average at GCSE. But some do 10 or more, and there may well be an educational case for reconsidering the numbers of subjects entered. Curricular breadth needs to be balanced against depth. But it is also possible that schools are indeed concentrating on fewer but better grades in order to boost the higher grades, to save on the not inconsiderable entry fees, or both.

There is also some fear that such intense emphasis on the five A to C performance indicator encourages schools to concentrate their efforts disproportionately on middle ability and marginal candidates, and to neglect lower-achievers. There is some evidence too that increased examination pressure is further alienating the very lowest achievers.

David Blunkett's promise in the White Paper to force 17,000 Easter leavers to stay on and take their GCSEs is not necessarily going to result in a proportionate increase in high-grade exam success - though the development of GCSE-equivalent vocational courses in schools (see page 5) may be one way to improve their motivation to succeed.

All this touches on a key story which this week's statistics tell us little about: whether Britain's notorious "long tail of underachievement" has been shortened or not. While we wait to find that out, perhaps one of Mr Blunkett's new task forces or improvement units should be looking at how far the particular statistics chosen for his school performance tables encourage or discourage schools to enable all pupils to achieve what they are capable of. Something more like a grade point average which ensured that all pupils' achievements counted might be more progressive.

Another GCSE kite flown this week was the idea that perhaps now is the time to ratchet up the exam's standard. This may prove to be a real exam howler, since the Government seems to be on the verge of setting itself exacting targets for improved performance in school exams. This makes it somewhat unlikely that it would, at the same time, want to make such targets more difficult to achieve.

Ministers are, of course, concerned about our international competitiveness and want to see standards improve across the board; but like news editors in August, they must also know how many voters now have a vested interest, of one kind or another, in ever-rising exam results.

Success for Less (or should it be Fewer?) seems an unlikely slogan for the next consultation document - let alone the next election.

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