“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” according to Aristotle. I think we can all agree that, during his time as education secretary, Michael Gove entertained a great many thoughts, and accepted a lot of them, too.
Free schools, a new national curriculum, reforming teacher training and Progress 8 were just some of the things he thought of – and accepted – during his tenure. Opinions remain firmly divided on whether our education system will be better or worse off as a result of his entertaining such ideas. However, there is one policy that even Gove’s most ardent supporters still probably wish he had rejected: the decision to score GCSEs on a scale of 9-1 instead of using letters.
Let us be clear – this is a monumental change in our education system. This year’s GCSE students will be the last ones to receive all their results in the form of letters, thereby ending a custom adhered to since 1975, when O levels moved to letter-based grading.
In light of the scale of this conversion, you might assume that there would be a considerable weight of evidence in favour of exchanging letters for numbers. You would be wrong to do so.
From the outset, Gove and his ministers clearly did not want to spend much time talking about it. The fact that this switchover only appeared on the third page of a 2013 Department for Education letter to exams regulator Ofqual, setting out the entire suite of proposed changes to GCSEs, gives a strong sense of where it sat in the hierarchy of reforms. When a new grading system was eventually mooted in paragraph 10, the need “to reflect the step change in expectations for pupils” was the sole and rather lacklustre justification.
Following this letter, Ofqual dutifully set about garnering views on a number-based grading scale because they felt this was “the best and clearest alternative to letters”. Even if Ofqual’s assertion that “GCSE grading does not currently discriminate effectively throughout the ability range in all subjects” were correct, it would have been nice if they had spent more time considering why this might be the case and how it could be dealt with using existing levers. Seemingly undeterred, Ofqual put out its number-based scale for consultation. It didn’t go well. A mere 15 per cent of the 328 responses from teachers, parents and education specialists agreed with the change. This was entirely predictable, as the DfE had already found scant support when it ran its own consultation.
Later in 2013, Ofqual commissioned research to discover what employers thought about a number-based grading scale. This didn’t go well either. Only 7 per cent of respondents felt that it might improve clarity and transparency, while just 4 per cent thought it might make it easier to identify higher-calibre candidates. Employers’ most common concerns were that it would add more confusion and complexity, force them to re-educate their staff and make it more difficult to compare candidate’s results with past GCSEs.
Ten per cent even wondered whether this might be a case of the government making changes just for the sake of it (perish the thought), with one respondent commenting that it felt like a “gimmick”. The most damning verdict from this research was that “the current system of A* to G grades is so familiar and established that it is difficult to see how a new system would deliver benefits that would compensate for the inconvenience of its introduction”.
One respondent summarised the views of many by saying: “Everybody knows the current system and understands it, so why change?” The research concluded that “there were significantly more comments relating to possible drawbacks than benefits”, and so yet another potential source of support for the proposed 9-1 system bit the dust.
Reticence and confusion
The collective blushes of Ofqual and the DfE might have been spared if universities had sung the praises of a 9-1 grading system. Instead, they have been remarkably reticent to express their views publicly, save for assuring students that they are changing application processes to accommodate the switch. The original Ofqual consultation included the views of only two universities, suggesting that they – like employers – are still trying to come to terms with what is happening.
Just imagine the scene on GCSE results day in August 2017, when more than 600,000 students and their parents storm towards school management teams demanding to know what on earth is happening.
The response will probably consist of some or all of the following statements: “No, we are not using letters any more”; “No, this wasn’t our idea”; “No, the numbers are not equivalent to the letters”; “No, employers don’t have a clue about this”; “No, universities didn’t ask for numbers either”; “No, A levels aren’t switching to numbers, too”; “No, the pass mark isn’t the same as it was”; and “Yes, your child is stuck with that mixture of letters and numbers for the rest of their life”.
If you are one of those who will be caught up in this debacle, you have my sympathy. There won’t be enough popcorn in the land to satisfy the demands of opposition press officers as they watch whichever poor soul is education secretary by 2017 floundering around trying to justify the 9-1 scale.
During his time in office, Gove announced a range of initiatives that were more expensive, more controversial and more immediately visible than changing GCSE grades from letters to numbers. Even so, in raw policy terms, it remains arguably the worst decision he made as education secretary. When Gove first entertained the thought of overhauling the whole GCSE grading system, it is a great shame that he did not heed Aristotle’s advice.
Tom Richmond is a teacher and former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education
This is an article from the 8 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here