From The Editor - Tale of the unexpected wasn't in the script

31st August 2012 at 01:00

A week after GCSE results were released we can be sure of some things. Unfortunately for pupils, who exactly got a C in English isn't one of them. Ofqual was due to report on that problem after TES went to press. But there are enough knowns among the unknowns to satisfy Donald Rumsfeld at his most unsure.

We know, for instance, that although ministers were keen to see an end to grade inflation, conspiracy theorists are wrong if they think this is how they wanted the story to unfold. Governments are no more competent in the shadows than they are in daylight. This one can't even manage an airport queue, for heaven's sake.

Any official script would not have had a reasonable debate on grade inflation hijacked by an almighty row about unfair examiners. Just as ministers were about to take a bow for ending the eternal rise in grades, the plot switched to pupils who had been denied Cs because the exam boards had not only moved the goalposts mid-term but also decided that what was a goal in January looked offside by June. The whole sorry process was about as convincing as Florida's "hanging chad" election. No, this was not in the script.

We can also be certain that it isn't about standards. Shifting a grade boundary a couple of kilometres at the eleventh hour does not in any sane universe constitute an improvement in the quality of learning. It merely shows that some hapless bureaucrat misplaced a decimal point and discovered the error too late.

We can be fairly sure, too, that grade inflation hawks will come to regret their zeal. Grade inflation is like the real thing. Too much destroys value. But put it in reverse and a deflationary future has dire consequences. If, for instance, Ofqual starts capping rises, it will become impossible for cohorts year on year to register improvements. Pupils will not only have to reach a set standard but they will also have to do better than those above the new fixed DC boundary.

Propelling kids from underprivileged backgrounds to within a shout of a C is tough enough. But if schools also have to bank on pupils who traditionally succeed doing less well, it will become mission impossible. There is a reason central banks do not set inflation targets at 0 per cent. Gently rising grade inflation over time is a good thing. It not only allows for improvement but it also gives hope to the excluded that the exam tent will be big enough to accommodate them.

Amid all the fuss, we also suspect that the important stuff has been forgotten. What content should be tested, how do we stretch the brightest kids, what exactly are GCSEs for? Small stuff like that.

But of one thing we can be totally certain: when people are involved, statistics treated as mere numbers result in incalculable costs. Disadvantaged pupils, the ones ministers say they are keen to help, have been the biggest losers (see pages 8-9). Tens of thousands of them have missed out on the grades they were told to expect. The underprivileged certainly need lessons. But is the art of cynical manipulation by those in positions of power one of them?

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