Riddle me this: what's the answer to grade inflation?

25th April 2014 at 01:00

Grade inflation is one of the great paradoxes of public sector policy.

It's right up there with the riddle of what to do with the NHS: the more successful the health service, the more unaffordable it becomes; the more brilliantly doctors and nurses use wonderful cutting-edge medicine, the longer the elderly live on to claim yet more expensive treatments. And thus the billions become trillions and no one, including chancellor George Osborne, knows what to do about it. Apart from maybe Dignitas.

Similarly, no one knows what to do about grade inflation. Much greater brains than the one possessed by this jobbing hack have wrestled with the problem and come up short. You're an education minister who wants to be judged successful? End grade inflation. Want to prove your policies are improving the lives of young people? You have to be pleased when results go up. What you can't do is allow more and more children to get A*s (or 9s, in the new era).

Squaring this circle is as essential as it is impossible. Take your mind back a few weeks to the brief Twitter storm that surrounded Gemma Worrall, a 20-year-old beautician from Blackpool, after she unthinkingly asked Twitter: "Why is our president Barraco Barner getting involved with Russia?" The micro-blogging platform exploded with the kind of righteous indignation and smug mockery that only it can generate.

Just as the frenzy was dying down, Ms Worrall told a national newspaper that she definitely wasn't stupid and she had 17 GCSEs to prove it. Suddenly the story was no longer about some daft tweet, but instead an opportunity to beat the education system with a large and hilarious stick. Critics lined up to demand whether our qualifications were really so devalued that someone so dim-witted could achieve so many.

Without taking sides in "Barraco-gate", the simple fact that grade inflation can so easily be used to criticise schools means politicians and academics must be congratulated when they try to do something about it. Squaring the grade inflation circle was one of the primary challenges that Michael Gove and the apparatchiks at exam regulator Ofqual set themselves when they embarked on the latest GCSE reforms now finally being crystallised.

We should be pleased that this oft-traditional education secretary has rejected a return to the injustices of normative referencing experienced by so many generations of pre-GCSE pupils. Instead, Gove - or, more accurately, Ofqual - has turned to what is being called a "national reference test". This will in essence sample a group of students every year on the same material as previous cohorts. The outcomes from this "control" will then be used to tell us whether results in the wider system should be allowed to rise. In other words, whether students are learning more.

Setting to one side the rest of the GCSE reform agenda and the fact that results will continue to be pegged to prior achievements (the morally dubious comparable outcomes idea), surely a fresh effort to resolve the Great Grade Inflation Paradox is to be welcomed. And if by some miracle it works, perhaps Mr Gove and Ofqual can then set their sights on sorting out the health service.



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