Is it good enough?

28th August 1998 at 01:00
Ten years of GCSE results provide a fitting moment to reflect on the annual angst about the regular increases in pass rates. Do they signal that education is going to the dogs? Or are pupils really better taught, brighter or more highly motivated?

It is true enough that all those incremental increases add up. In 1988, for instance, when the GCSE was hustled in by Kenneth Baker against the wishes of teachers who wanted more time to prepare, almost 42 per cent of the entries resulted in a grade C or better. Ten years on, nearly 55 per cent did so; a 30 per cent increase.

To those unconvinced about the real standards being achieved in schools, more must mean worse. For them, such figures provide evidence of a creeping rot devaluing the standard that the old O-level was supposed to represent.

This overlooks the fact, however, that the GCSE was specifically designed to enable more pupils to show what they could do - as Baker and his predecessor Sir Keith, later Lord, Joseph, repeatedly emphasised. Testing understanding rather than rote learning, and giving candidates positive credit for what they know rather than penalising mistakes, was supposed to widen access to qualifications.

And then there is the changing background against which these exams have been taken. The national curriculum widened access; pupil-led funding and league tables put an onus on schools to improve; and school inspectors called more frequently. Even before such measures, however, teachers were showing improved effectiveness in GCSE.

Such gains as there have been seem modest enough in comparison with other countries; and Scottish pupils outstripped the rest of the UK in spite of being deprived of such draconian top-down reforms. But in England and Wales much of the improvement may have had less to do with Government than with underlying social and economic forces: the rising tide of middle-class aspirations; the demise of manual work; and the increasing importance of qualifications in the jobs market.

In any month other than August, the question might well have been: have exam results improved enough in response to the strides made by our industrial competitors?

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