Five grades good

1st February 2008 at 00:00
I've now met the 15 students in my newly formed Gradewatch group which I supervise for part of the week. Each one is a character but also a statistical half-a-percentage point on our results next year, if we get it right. The sums are significant. They've dropped an option and are concentrating on English and maths instead.

For the gold standard for Year 11 leavers has changed. The fabled criteria, any old five GCSEs, are forgotten. Now it has to be five A*-Cs, including those two good-for-you golden subjects. It's no longer possible for a school to gain a high league-table position by offering multiple passes in GNVQ subjects - four GCSEs in skateboarding and another high-grade equivalent in fishing. School-leavers must be numerate and literate as well. They are no longer leavers these days, of course, but merely in transit on their way to further education which isn't really staying on at school. Or is it?

We always suspected that some schools were playing the system. The differences between the old rankings and the new ones tell us that something was definitely going on. We don't allow cheating in the exams, so why did we put up with grade distortion in the lists?

Politicians are also now talking about five "good" GCSEs rather than five high-grade passes. It's a subtle shift in language. They think we won't notice. And a "bad" GCSE isn't one in media studies or dance either, though, sadly, that's the view of the Russell Group of Universities who should know better.

Keith Joseph, when he was education secretary, was clear when he introduced the system that all grades were passes. It's just that some grades are now more equal than others. So, unless the opposite of good has changed its meaning, why invent the concept of bad GCSEs?

Those in Gradewatch might convert some Ds to Cs. But D may be the best they can achieve. If these are bad GCSEs, we're in the world of Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it's so that politicians can claim the high ground by arguing for the abolition of grades E and F. If these are to go, we should be clear it's because standards have risen. Surely that's a cause for celebration.

It could even benefit the public figures who make up and then change the rules. But I suspect they'd rather claim they are being tough on standards. Well, so are we, and at least we understand the system.

Politicians have to refrain from talking tough and become masters of their own brief. If grades below a C are no longer regarded as passes, let them be clear about it. Separating achievements into good and bad for the sake of a soundbite helps no one. Genuine gold standards will always be our aspiration - even for the skateboarders and those gone fishing, and definitely for my Gradewatchers.

Ray Tarleton, Headteacher, South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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