English GCSE


               That was quite a storm. After years of rising standards, with each year showing an improvement, we reach a year when fewer young people are awarded A* to C grades.

                Some  teachers complain that good pupils have been marked down. They say that if they had been told what the new higher standards were, they would have prepared their pupils to achieve them. They say the marking has been too tough. It was, of course, teachers undertaking the marking, with other teachers advising the Exam Boards on the papers and the marking system.

                Other teachers say it is important to arrest grade inflation. They think it had become too easy to get an A or A*. They hope this latest set of results marks a turning point in establishing and maintaining standards of achievement.

                There seems to be some uncertainty about whether the current system is trying to establish an absolute standard of achievement which stays the same year after year, or whether they wish to have a similar proportion getting higher grades each year by fixing the pass mark through keeping the proportions of the different grades the same.

                 It is unfair on those taking the exams if they do not know what is expected, or if the standards change between the time they start and the time they finish without them knowing it. It is particularly unfair if  someone needs a C or higher in a GCSE to go on to further study, and has just failed to get this through some unannounced change in the standard required.

                  A case can be made for a different approach to exams, and reconsideration of what is expected. Some older people who did O levels think a return to their virtues could help. I am not  sure. O levels required a lot of learning by rote, where the information is now easily available to anyone who wants to look it up. O levels did also require some different levels of thought and attainment from GCSE, which might be worth considering as part of a new GCSE syllabus. Some GSCE syllabuses include items which are good additions to the old O level.

                 I am myself now unsure of what is going on and what is needed for 16 year old qualifications. To do well in the 6th form students should need some basic knowledge, good skills in maths, English and foreign languages depending on their choice of 6th form course, and a capacity to study independently. How far does GCSE prepare young people for that? How could it be improved? I look forward to your views.

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  1. colliemum
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    This really shows what is wrong with the whole system:
    “They [some teachers] say that if they had been told what the new higher standards were, they would have prepared their pupils to achieve them.”
    Pupils are not taught any longer, they are ‘prepared to achieve standards’. This was also shown when a pupil said (DT online yesterday) that if he’d known that the boundaries had been set higher he’d have worked more …

    As long as teachers ‘prepare’ pupils for exams only but don’t teach; as long as pupils work just sufficiently to achieve whatever standard, but do not learn to earn the highest possible marks, then the situation will remain as it is: universities needing to have remedial classes because students are incapable of writing proper English, and businesses complaining of school leavers incapable of writing a grammatically correct sentence, never mind spelling.

    Why are our teachers and especially their Union bosses not ashamed of the fact that so many people coming here from Eastern European countries are speaking and writing a better English than our own school leavers?
    I’ll refrain from answering that question, so as not to scorch the screens of John and all the readers of his blog…

    • Acorn
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      I interrupt this thread to remind Redwoodians to read uncle Tim today. I won’t mention that we had to put JR straight on the “Right to Buy” policy mistake recently, but Tim’s numbers say it all.

      http://www.tullettprebon.com/announcements/strategyinsights/notes/2010/SIN20120824.pdf .

      • Bazman
        Posted August 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        This paper tells it how it is, but how many still say it is better to rent than buy? As if it ever was.

    • uanime5
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      As long as League Tables reward those who get the highest marks and ministers punish the 50% of schools that achieves below average results expect teachers to prioritise raising grades above all else.

      Also don’t blame teachers and unions for what they teach in school. Ministers set the curriculum, not schools.

    • Matt
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      >> This really shows what is wrong with the whole system

      I agree but it seems to me a natural consequence of league tables based on A-C passes.

  2. Kevin R. Lohse
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    What is wrong with learning by rote? Do you open up the highway code to find out what a yellow light means every time you approach a traffic light? I personally find that the multiplication tables that I learnt as a child come in useful on a daily basis, and the mental arithmetic I learnt in school enables me to do simple calculations in my head more quickly than a person using a calculator. Stage actors have to learn lines by rote to perform. If you, John, have learnt a speech by rote, you will be able to concentrate on the delivery and make a far more effective presentation.
    A certain amount of basic knowledge learnt by rote trains the brain to hold information, and it is no surprise that the ,’Learn and Dump”, educational method used in schools and universities has resulted in poor memory skills amongst the young. Even knowing where to go to look things up requires an orderly mind.

    Reply: Yes, of course rote learmning of the basics you use all the time is important to get started. However, learning a series of things for an exam and then forgetting them promptly afterwards because you rarely use them is a less sensible approach to learning.

    • Robert K
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      “If you, John, have learnt a speech by rote, you will be able to concentrate on the delivery and make a far more effective presentation.”
      I believe that JR does not use notes in speeches. Corrrect? 🙂

      Reply NO, I do not have a text or notes. However, I do not write and learn a speech. I just speak, based on my views and ideas at the time, and on what I think the audience is interested in. I usually ask the audience before speaking what topics they find most interesting, if it is say an after dinner political speech to a general audience.

      • Robert K
        Posted August 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        Quite so. Learning to speak by rote may have its uses – Greek and Roman orators put a much store on memorising lengthy speeches using memor room techniques – but understanding your topic and being able to think on your feet are as least as important.

    • lifelogic
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      I studied Maths/Physics and later Electronics but I was never very good at learning by rote. Certainly not French words which had little relevance or interest to me at the time. Even 7X9 will always be 70-7 to me. I see that Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize winner, managed to fail his French O-level 6 times (mind you, it seems, he has been taken in by some of the absurd global warming exaggerations in BBC think mode).

      • lifelogic
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Nor was I very good at spelling the absurdly irrational (and fixed in aspic) English. The good news here is that the internet is apparently slowly rationalising it all, looking at Google searches, soon we may perhaps have Yot, Rubarb, nife, rite, newmatic, supeena, fizeek ………….

        Then perhaps we will have fewer problems quickly teaching more to read well, as they already have already in many, rather more phonetic, languages.

        It is thinking and logic that really matters not irrational notation.

        • Mark
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

          There is a great advantage in standardisation in terms of ensuring intelligibility: it was one of the most important consequences of Dr Johnson’s first dictionary. I had to do a double take on several of your mis-spelled list to work out what was meant. Education is a rite of passage where you need to write the right answers.

          • lifelogic
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

            You sound rather like the EU wanting to standardise everything – clearly all things will need to be done in German soon I assume.

            By your logic you kill evolution in spelling and sensible improvements to the language and you waste millions of hours of peoples time pointlessly. Also you surely, by the same logic, need to have a single pronunciation and accent in the spoken language. You will need to get all those southerners to pronounce bath properly rather than barf too?

            You may have to do a double take for a while but not for long. Certainly not as long as a child has to with yacht or physique. Why waste their time on silly notation when they can be using it to understand more important things. Surely yot is fairly clear to anyone after a second or two.

          • Sidney Falco
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

            Adding to lifelogic’s comments.

            I suppose, if you lived in Shakespeare’s time, you would expect everyone to still use and spell words as he wrote them.

            Also, you used a quote marking possession. The quote didn’t appear in England until the 16th century. So, are quotes good or bad?

        • Glyn H
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          Those words look ghastly; long live the English language and perish such vulgar ‘improvements’. They smack of New Labour and its efforts; such as the HoC sitting 9-5, or discarding the Office of Lord Chancellor. Or debauching the economy.

          • lifelogic
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

            They only look Ghastly to you due to what you are used to and general inertia. There were well over twenty spellings of Shakespeare’s name at the time. Words and grammar evolve all the time why keep irrational spellings fixed for ever more. Dyslexia and slow reading/writing are far less common in countries like Italy which have rather more rational systems of spelling. Just -ough has ten pronunciations in British English.

        • forthurst
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

          Unfortunately there is a basic flaw in the concept of phonetic spelling as being more intelligible, which is that depending on dialect or first language, peoples’ expressions of both consonantal and vowel sounds varies very widely and there is frequently very little overlap at all.

          • lifelogic
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

            Well the spoken language work fairly well despite these problems and variable accents. Accent/pronunciation is to the spoken work what spelling is to the written word after all.

            Regardless of this I cannot see how retaining absurdly, irrational spellings such as Yacht, Write, Rhubarb, Knife – fixed in aspic by some arbitrary accident of history and then fixed “semi permanently” by a dictionary helps matters very much. Long live evolution, it will win in the end, in spelling, language, accent, industry, genetics, energy systems, on the net ……

            Perhaps by your logic in mathematics, science or engineering we should introduce some irrational and random notations every so often if it is so beneficial? Just to confuse and keep people on their toes perhaps?

        • Sean O'Hare
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          soon we may perhaps have Yot, Rubarb, nife, rite, newmatic, supeena, fizeek

          Dear me! I sincerely hope not.

          • lifelogic
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

            You already have them in typed into search engines every second. Sometimes more commonly than the “right” spelling.

          • Bazman
            Posted August 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

            A race to the bottom even in the case of the English language. Why don’t we all have our own spelling?

        • zorro
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          I think that spelling is important as it helps convey ideas more effectively to a wider audience and injects some discipline into logical thought processes.

          I know that some struggle with spelling but lifelogic, could it be a mild case of undiagnosed dyslexia in your case? When I grew up they used to teach you how to think and write as you thought i.e. yot etc but then you learned to standardise spelling. I am certainly not in favour of just one language being spoken in the future, but we are certainly gravitating towards English and Chinese in the future.

          With regards to learning by rote….It certainly has its uses, but the aim should be to educate a child….’educare’ from the latin, which has the meaning of ‘to bring up, to rear’ – ‘to educate, to train’ which implies the ability to think through problems and be creative in thought.


          • forthurst
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

            “we are certainly gravitating towards English and Chinese in the future.”

            In losing a language you also lose a culture and its great literary works and there needs to be a refuge from Hollywood. (Oh, to be able to dispense with those subtitles.)

            Some words express meanings in one language which do not exist it another; do we want to subsist purely on the deficiencies of English or the vulgarities of the American dialect?

      • zorro
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        Did you study electronics at ‘O’ level?


        • lifelogic
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

          Was there such an O level then? No only much later after Maths/Physics at University.

      • Bazman
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        How about your Fox News think mode?

    • frank salmon
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      But when you learn something for an exam it often stays with you. I can still quote you from Richard III (Shakespeare) nearly 40 years after taking the exam. Under the current system there is no way I would have bothered to learn the lines, and I would not be able to talk as authoritatively as I do, today, about Shakespeare. In GCSEs today, they give you the quotes to use in the exam itself. Preposterous.

      • Gary H
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        That must have got you a job on many occasions. Well done

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      I have sometimes surprised myself by remembering elements of things I was taught and have not used for many years, suddenly finding unexpected application for them. The art of memorising is itself extremely useful. Those who can remember things rather than having to take time to look them up are much, much more productive. It can be vital in some occupations: a doctor who recalls details of a rare condition and thus makes a correct diagnosis rather than a wrong one, for instance.

    • startledcod
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      As you point out learning by rote is not necessarily essential as so much information is instantly available however some, possibly the larger part, of the syllabus should seek to develop the individual’s ability to work independently and conduct their own research, NOT just online.

      I wondered whether the slight drop in standards might be done to a more rigorous application of grammar standards but then realised that if the papers were being marked by teachers they probably had no idea themselves. ‘Myself and the other teachers …….’

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Re reply

      Surely the “learning” and the “forgetting” at two quite different issues.

      Pupils do not set the syllabus, so to pass the exam they have to learn that on which they will be examined. There is not an infinite choice of courses, so to get a certain number of passes may require studying subjects that are merely a means to an end.

      Having passed the exam, that which is had been learnt may not be of much relevance to what the student does next, in work or furthering education. Forgetting is then likely.

      The number and quality of exam passes is an indicator of ability. It is not the same as training to do a job.

    • RB
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      Learn and Dump got me a 2:1 in my law degree. I learned by use of lists about 1500 legal cases for use in exam answers. A week after my finals I had forgotten most of them. (Ok I do accept that I did learn and retain all of the legal principles, etc.)

      I did go on to private practice for 20 years so no harm done!

  3. lifelogic
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Simply publish candidate percentile position relative to all the people who took the exam. The average standard, year to year, of entrants is not likely to vary much after all.

    Then perhaps give a grade (for that subject) for the average input ability to that subject (perhaps obtained by looking at the average result of the entrants in all their subjects relative to that subject). So subjects, such as Further or Additional Maths or Music, which are often taken only by students that are relatively good at them, can then be recognised. People, universities and businesses can then make allowances for this should they wish to.

    When I used to select people I tended to just set them my own exam/tests it is very easy to make judgements very quickly – often at total odd to GCSEs.

    If for example someone gets a B in English it is hard to tell if they are bright but have bad spelling and messy writing or dim with good spelling and handwriting. Similarly they may be bright at maths but make silly careless mistakes. When you test them yourself you can see this very quickly indeed.

    The modern GCSE Maths and Physics seem to be little more than basic rote learning anyway now so people can often get good grades without much actual thinking at all if they have a good memory.

    • lifelogic
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      I see that Lord McAlpine has called for the return of donations made to the Tories from jailed Asil Nadir’s Polly Peck. But would Cameron find anyone to replace these donations? He looks very likely to lose the next election and has such a mad, pro EU anti business, and quack green policies in place? No one sensible, would want to contribute to a party, led by Cameron in the wrong directions and who has squandered all his credibility so quickly – would they?

      Reply: If the donations had come from Mr Nadir, who has now been found guilty of theft, they should be returned forthwith. However, I think they came from Polly Peck, the company, so the Conservative party is likely to argue they do not have to be returned as that money was not stolen.

      • lifelogic
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        To Reply:- perhaps a defensible position in legal terms. I suppose it depend on when the donations were made and how close this was to the final collapse of the company. Once again we see how little power or even honest information shareholders in public companies often have.

        Will this line work politically? It will surely just be seen as the Tories not returning the “stolen” funds I suspect, by the public in general?

        • forthurst
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          If the company had made the donation then that has nothing to do with Mr Nadir, since it would have been entirely a matter for the Administrators who will no doubt have long since attempted to call in all monies which they had believed were due to the company for whatever reason.

          • Bazman
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

            Has nothing to do with Mr Nadir? What else had nothing to do with him?

        • zorro
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

          The Lib Dems aren’t keen on returning dodgy donations either….http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/former-lib-dem-donor-could-face-extradition-to-the-uk-7668785.html


          • lifelogic
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

            What people donate to the LibDems – surely not.

      • Denis Cooper
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Are there Polly Peck creditors still pursuing claims? If so, might it not end up with the Conservative party having to argue that in court?

      • Alan Wheatley
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Could it not be that the “wrong” direction is, at least in part, a consequence of donations currently being received?

        • lifelogic
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          Are they getting any current donations who on earth would donate now?

      • Bob
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Reply to reply:

        How about the stolen money given to the Lib Dems by Michael Brown ? Should that be returned?

        • Denis Cooper
          Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink


    • Rebecca Hanson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      The kind of systems I’m describing in my post below would provide employers with far more detailed information lifelogic. QR codes are added to certificates so employers can instantly verify qualification and access details regarding the component parts of what has been achieved.

      • Mark
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        I’m not convinced of the value of this sort of approach. Qualifications matter most when progressing to the next stage in life: after that they are less important than recent experience or higher qualifications. You can invest too much in detailed quantified assessment where a simple reference would do the same job at far lower cost. Moreover, the technical nature of the results simply requires an industry of interpreters to make anything of them. Nice theory – but not practical.

        • Rebecca Hanson
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          At present students are subject to substantial formative assessment where teachers keep detailed records of aspects of their progress, but this detailed knowledge is lost as it is part of a totally separate system to that which accredits them.

          Existing systems have shown that combining formative and summative assessment is a very powerful and beneficial thing to do. It is already being done successfully with small scale qualifications. However to do it with large scale key assessments would require substantial investment on the part of commercial companies in education. To justify this investment they need a coherent and stable policy environment which understands the benefits of this future and won’t do silly things to compromise it.

          I’m sorry you haven’t yet got sufficient information to understand what I’m explaining Mark. Please do feel free to ask for more and I will respond.

          • Mark
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            I understand perfectly. To avoid burying things in jargon, one may guage visualisation skills ranging from “cannot read a map”, through “can understand IKEA assembly instructions” to “can mentally visualise rotations of four dimensional figures”, and algebra from “cannot solve a simple linear equation” through “mastering quadratics” to “having facility with Lie algebras good enough to do some serious particle physics”. An exam does not necessarily record whether a particular skill has been mastered. It only assesses an overall score for “maths”, and some skills will not be tested in any given exam. Clearly a detailed record of homework scores as each topic is covered provides some added insight. So does an overall impression of a child’s ability as perceived by a teacher.

            However, sometimes the penny drops sometime after a topic has been covered – perhaps in a different context (e.g. the physics class not the maths class), or over-emphasis on in-course evaluation means that the topic hasn’t truly been mastered, but instantly forgotten and is therefore not available as a foundation for another topic.

            For this information to be of much use, you also have to profile the job or course that the person moves into in similar fashion. It’s all rather laboured, and frankly of largely academic interest.

          • Rebecca Hanson
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:28 am | Permalink

            Actually it’s not so complicated as it seems Mark.

            If the systems are set up properly you can provide quite clear information regarding the level of confidence and flexibility a student has with each set of skills and the contexts in which they have demonstrated.

            General information regarding the extent to which a students has developed their personal skills in working independently, dealing with unfamiliar situations, being resilient when they are stuck, presenting their findings clearly and so on can also be provided.

            Proper organisation and a degree of online testing of the traditionally examined knowledge and skills allows teachers more time to get students working and properly tracking the set of personal skills which are currently so neglected in formative exams but study after study shows are precisely what employers and universities want.

          • Lindsay McDougall
            Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

            There’s no need to be complex. Employers want to know the student’s exam mark and course work mark SEPARATELY so that they, and not the educational establishment, can take rational decisions on potential employees.

    • Lindsay McDougall
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

      You may all be overjoyed to know that ex-MP Michael Mates is standing for the position of elected Police Commissioner in Hampshire. Mr Mates famously wrote to Asil Nadir saying “Don’t let the b______s get you down!”. Whether that was his biggest error of judgement, or backing Michael Hesletine for the Conservative Party leadership, I will leave you gentle readers to decide.

  4. Leslie Singleton
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I have always thought that a lot of our education needs a big rethink because to me so much of what is taught in School is all but useless in the real world. I was given a superb education to a high level and personally I have no complaint rather the opposite but even on a subject like Mathematics which is usually vaunted as being ultra essential, how many use much if anything they were taught (Surds? Matrices?? Imaginary Numbers???) apart from Arithmetic and little of that in these electronic days. Maybe we need more Geography, Geology and Surveying at an early age because we still need to get around and to help us find oil and measure in general. Building Construction might be good including Woodwork and Metalwork also Car Maintenance. Art to my mind is all very well but is more of a hobby than a School subject and as well teach Chess or Scrabble. Photography might be more of a career but I don’t think that gets taught much. History seems to be declining because of the Left Wing hatred of anything patriotic. Stuff that would unarguably be very useful later on in life to most people is ignored for reasons I have never understood. I have in mind Business Studies, Marketing, Bookkeeping, Accounting, Monetary Theory, Personnel Management, Taxation, Security etc, the type of subject that it seems at present are left till later if at all but which for many people will certainly be needed and which would presumably help with the dreaded GDP. Unlike on the continent, at least last time I looked, our children aren’t even taught how to use a calculator properly, therefore rapidly (I certainly wasn’t), meaning with three fingers centred on that dot in the middle. So I reckon a big shake up is needed.

    As to the standards of the Exams you are right, many of us are mystified. It is unfortunately the unarguable truth that in Life you pass or fail and one does no favours to children by trying to pretend it can be any other way. Was it true (it may not be serious) what I heard the other day about some barking mad school where they all race to the finishing line but stop before it and cross together “so they can all win”? With the increase in Globalisation that ain’t gonna cut it. Bring back Grammar Schools of course and if Cameron doesn’t like it, shoot him.

    • lifelogic
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      You say “I have always thought that a lot of our education needs a big rethink because to me so much of what is taught in School is all but useless in the real world.” it certainly is.

      If we really want people to learn languages perhaps we should teach them to hear and speak these when they are receptive at a very early age. No at 12+. Many people cannot even cook or put a shelf up, work out interest and cost on a bank statement of bill.

      Compound interest, logic, negotiation, seeing things from others viewpoints, the legal framework, maths and some practical skills are perhaps most important things for most people.

      • Vanessa
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I have always thought education was to train the brain not to teach one how to put up shelves etc. you can read a book to do that (if, indeed, you can read!). Education trains the brain and learning by rote is a valuable tool for that. To learn a new language you have to learn vocabulary by rote. Memory has to be developed. But the ability to ask questions and think through problems does not come with looking everything up on the internet. The connexions in the brain extend if you think for yourself, pose questions about life and it will come up with answers. When you are constantly plugged into a music system or phone the brain gets no exercise – that is the key. Brain exercise.

        • lifelogic
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          Putting up a shelf trains the brain too.

          • lifelogic
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

            Many practical and engineering skills require very considerable thought and brain power. Try designing and building a car or an Ipod for example. Are these less intellectually challenging or less mind expanding than a textual analysis of Homer/Beowulf or even the learning of endless, often absurd, vague and contradictory, legal statutes?

          • Mark
            Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

            Poor legal drafting is one of the banes of modern life.

        • Bazman
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          If you ask many people what happened in 1066 without the web as an exampl,e many are pig ignorant and as I have often pointed out many managers are supported by the middle class social security system.

          • lifelogic
            Posted August 28, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

            Is what happened in 1066 relevant most of them?

          • Bazman
            Posted August 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

            I rest my case…As I said a pig ignorant cat like existence only interested as to what is personally relevant to themselves.

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      I can assure you I have made regular use of surds, matrices and imaginary numbers in my working life. Anyone who deals in engineering or seismic interpretation or statistics or banking derivatives or designs computer games for instance would find them useful.

      • Leslie Singleton
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Mark, Very happy to defer to you on this (I used a lot of it myself) but what percentage of the population would that apply to (indeed could apply to, which is where Grammar Schools came in)?

  5. Ian Hills
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Nothing wrong with rote, except where GCSEs use it as a substitute for abstract reasoning, which O-levels excelled in – as did A-levels. Bring back old-style O-levels and A-levels.

    However for the less academically inclined, a more down-to-earth qualification would be more appropriate. Imagine “practical maths”, involving shopping skills rather than solving the quadratic equation.

    Such a new qualification shouldn’t seek to imitate CSEs, as these were merely second-rate O-levels, of no use to employers or further education interviewers. The emphasis should be on practical rather than academic use.

    • Barry
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I’d be happy to agree with the arguments against rote learning if products of the current education system demonstrated superior reasoning skills. I meet many of them on a day to day basis, and they don’t.

      Not only that, but their general knowledge is almost non existent.

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink
    • David John Wilson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I entirely support the idea of a GCSE in practical mathematics. This would need to go far beyond shopping to cover subjects like tax calculations, mortgages, hire purchase, budgeting, use of spreadsheets etc. This should be a minimum requirement for most school leavers and anyone wanting to move onto arts A-levels

      This should be balanced by a second subject covering the branches of algebra, trigonometry, calculus etc necessary for anyone wanting to take A-levels in science, pure or applied maths, geography etc.

      • Monty
        Posted August 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        David, the practical mathematics would also need to include such concepts as symmetry, translation, rotation, reflection, and the unit cell in patterns. Otherwise our pupils would struggle to estimate and complete tasks such as wallpapering, tiling, carpet fitting, and making curtains and upholstery.

  6. Robert K
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    The answer lies in competition.
    My daughter and her friends have just received their AS results so we are in the thick of this at the moment. When achieved grades go in line or better than expectations, then the student is delighted and grade inflation is ignored. When they don’t then the student is disappointed and comments about tougher marking are made. From where I sit, the students who get As and A*s have put in more effort and show more aptitude than those who get lower grades and should be congratulated! Also bear in mind that the banding of grades is only the start of the process. Unlike in the days of O Levels, these days the results include the percentage score, which I assume universities and employers can take into account.
    I reckon that the best system is one which produces a challenging test of a good syllabus. My daughter was given the choice of IGCSEs in some subjects because the school preferred the syllabus. A good solution would be to introduce more choice and variety in the exams on offer, allowing schools and students to cherry pick the ones that suit them best. In other words, introduce competition between exam boards.
    Getting grades that tick boxes for employers or universities is only one aspect of secondary education. More important is the intellectual, moral and physical development of the student. Kids should be able to choose the syllabus that suits them, do as well as they can, and let prospective employers or universities sort out their selection processes accordingly.

    • Mike Wilson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Don’t agree with a word you have written. Some of my son’s peers have got a string of As and A*s and made no effort at all.

      If I were to offer someone a job (I never will, it is too much hassle) – I would completely ignore their educational achievements and, like many universities these days, make them sit an exam to determine how numerate and literate they are.

      As for competition between exam boards – how on earth is an employer supposed to judge the merits of an A* from Board A as opposed to an A* from Board B?

      • Robert K
        Posted August 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        When I consider people for a degree-level job I do consider their school and university record to be relevant. They will need to study for and pass professional exams so they need a demonstrable academic ability. I demand candidates sit specific aptitude tests before I hire them, but I can’t replicate the rigours of a degree course.
        Having different exam boards makes it no more difficult for a university or employer to make a selection than it is for me to weight the merits of different job applicants based on their university and degree. Is a second from Oxbridge more or less impressive than a first from a less glamourous university? There’s no defnitive answer to that. I just have to make a judgement. Universities are full of clever people, so they shouldn’t struggle to figure out how they regard different exam boards.
        As for your son’s friends, I can’t speak for how much work they did or didn’t do. Nor, I suspect, can you or your son. We all have met people who get great results without appearing to doing any work – they are either very smart or very good at hiding how much work they are actually doing.

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      The O levels I did were graded 1-9, which is probably about as fine a division of marks as makes practical sense. In addition, actual scores were also available: I know I scored 150% on my Advanced Maths for instance, and that I dropped one mark on French dictée (for capitalising “messe”).

  7. Mick Anderson
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Why not give the mark as a percentge (assuming that they still teach them)

    It removes all elements of the “nearly” grades, along with the banding effect of A/B/C grades.

    • David John Wilson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      You mean like they used to for O-levels, A-levels and S-levels when I took them. What ever happened to S-levels? These were necessary to get into the better universities. They could also be accompanied by a reinstated “state scholarship” so that the cream of students (the top 2%) had their fees and living costs paid by the state even if it was means tested.

  8. Pete the Bike
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    My experience of school leavers is that their education focuses entirely on grades for exams that do not prepare them for real life. Frequently they have no understanding that business must make a profit, no experience of anything except memorizing information in order to pass tests and no idea of how to think for themselves. The state education system continues to fail them as it did me many years ago. It does not adapt or innovate to help individuals and turns out preprogrammed clones to sit at desks and shuffle paper. Generations of children have been hammered into a shape that doesn’t allow them to attain all that they could. The state never changes.

    • uanime5
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      You’re expecting too much from the young. There are four reasons why they’re like this.

      1) If this is their first job you can’t expect them to know about a business anymore than you expect them to know about a subject they’ve never studied.

      2) You can’t expect people who have just started a job, and are getting to grips with all their new tasks and processes to be able to improve what they’re doing.

      3) If you don’t give employees clear tasks they won’t do anything because they won’t know what they should be doing. Part of being a good manager is ensuring your employees know at all time what they should be doing.

      4) You never get good employees if you pay as little as possible.

  9. Rebecca Hanson
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    On the issue of language and grammar – we need to work on creating a culture in education which splits the teaching of grammar (including the teacher of foreign languages for grammar) from the teaching of foreign languages for the purposes of communication (which is also essential – children should be learning to communicate in foreign language with the support of tools like Google translate and so on). But that’s not a quick fix so it won’t be done as politicians don’t care about anything which takes time and they keep cancelling anything the professionals do which does.

    On the issue of assessment, what’s needed is a roots up rethink of how we can combine formative (for the information of the teacher and the child but with no formal credit) assessment and summative assessment using the new technologies which are now making this possible.

    I’ve spent a year visiting the people who are at the forefront of technology and innovation in this area and have written a 10 part blog on this which starts here: http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/assessing-students-up-to-age-14-much.html
    You need to introduce these reforms at the bottom end first to set up familiarity and confidence with what’s possible before moving them into the high stakes area of GCSEs and A-levels. Small policy moves are needed to set up the environment where the major players in education will invest in these systems.

    • outsider
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Dear Rebecca Hanson,

      I question whether it is helpful to think about the General Certificate of Secondary Education in the same way as A levels or other higher or specialist education. The main function of GCSEs is, or should be, to equip everybody to be an effective and confident citizen: to earn a living, express oneself clearly, vote, sit on a jury, travel at home and abroad, use technology and behave as an ethical and responsible member of society.

      GCSE should therefore be more akin to the driving test than to sorting people out, though some grading by marks or level of attainment is clearly beneficial, not least for incentives and choice of A levels.

      Those who are more able or work harder can take the exams earlier and move on, or be stretched by taking additional subjects (eg more languages, differential calculus, statistics, Latin or geology).

      From my limited experience of children learning for GCSEs in recent years, the curriculum in subjects such as history, geography and science(s) simply does not cover anything like the breadth needed to be an effective and confident citizen and some vital areas, such as ethics and knowledge of the British/EU “constitutions” and legal systems, are given short shrift. Too much is only of interest or value to those who will go on to take A levels in that subject – ie intrinsically a minority.

      To be honest, that seems more important than the technology of assessment.

      • Rebecca Hanson
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        The purpose of the qualification should be to provide information regarding what the student has learned and done. New technologies could be used to provide far more detail regarding the component parts of of what the student has achieved and the methodologies by which they have been assess than was ever possible before.

        The purpose of the curriculum is to define what should be taught and the experience the student should have.

        When the two things are confused much is lost.

        • outsider
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          Point accepted. I was suggesting that if the curriculum was right and the exams tested competence in what was taught, then merely passing the core would give confidence to the children themselves, as well as to others, including such employers as want to take on 16 year olds. I would not have thought that the latter would be looking for an A* in maths and physics. The same applies if the pupils needed several goes to achieve success. It does not matter at this level so long as they get there .

        • Andrew Johnson
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

          GCSE’s have hardly any relevance to employment in the professions or more interesting and potentially lucrative careers/jobs, or to entrance to a good University.
          Just what they are for seems to be a never ending debate for the professional education class.
          The highest standards in A levels are now achieved by so many that the A level has become a very blunt tool for both employers and good Universities. This is why both sectors insist on interviews, and their own examinations and tests.
          In my working experience, having good academic qualifications does not guarantee that someone will be good at their job.

          • Rebecca Hanson
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

            This has been the conclusion reach many times, particularly in studies commissioned by employers.

            New systems which combine formative and summative assessment could ensure that the skills which are currently neglected are tracked and developed alongside the traditional exam curriculums.

    • Lindsay McDougall
      Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      I’d be a little bit cautious of computerised translation if I were you. I once used one of those tools to translate a German article on the subject of tolls (as in ‘toll roads’). The German word for ‘toll’ was translated as ‘death’ throughout. It made hilarious reading but was not very informative.

      What a human being can do is to make an initial reading of a foreign language text, identifying context and keywords, before getting down to the translation. You could possibly write a computer program to do that and maybe they have now got round to it. Only by repeated use of the software can you make such a judgement; accepting it because it has the Google brand is unwise.

      And as always, you have to remember that technology isn’t free. Technology costs, for example, compete with building repair costs – and it’s often imported technology.

  10. frank salmon
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    John, you say: ‘I am not sure. O levels required a lot of learning by rote, where the information is now easily available to anyone who wants to look it up.’

    But of course information is available – it used to be in books! The fact is that with internally assessed GCSEs, the marking has come down to tutor discretion – and of course favouritism. Under the current system the students simply cut and paste – and voila an A*, just like all the other kids. What is needed of course, is a restoration of meritocracy in education. Since the system is marxist, it is unlikely Gove will even make an impression – though he deserves full marks for his efforts……

  11. Sebastian Weetabix
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I find this whole furore ridiculous. The percentage passing dropped on average by 0.4%! I even heard a headteacher say on the radio that he was worried his school would trigger an Ofsted inspection because the pass rate at his school was 79% last year and only 63% this year. (Given that the rate dropped nationally by only 0.4% and his school dropped by 16%, perhaps there should be.)

    Speaking as someone who recruits people occasionally I do think educational standards have dropped in terms of literacy & numeracy over the last couple of decades. It is not unusual to receive written applications from graduates that are ungrammatical and mis-spelled. O-level was not perfect but it had 2 merits: the results were norm-referenced, so if a candidate achieved an ‘A’ you knew he was in the top 5-10% and secondly they had to perform under pressure in an exam, rather than do modules at leisure with help from teachers and parents, re-taking modules to bump up marks. One other side effect of modern teaching is, it seems to me, that many young people have inflated views of their own ability and have never been on the receiving end of serious criticism. One of my colleagues (politely, gently and factually) informed a recent school leaver that some work she had done was simply not up to the standard required. She instantly accused him of bullying.

    We do our young people no favours when we dispense good grades too easily and only ever accentuate the positive. It isn’t a good preparation for life.

    • uanime5
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      Regarding receiving serious criticism that’s partially the fault of parents who complain to schools that give their children negative report cards. That’s why failing was replaced with “areas to improve”.

      • Lindsay McDougall
        Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Ah, yes, everbody has won and everbody shall have prizes.

  12. Iain Gill
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    1. Stop the dyslexia scam where masses of middle class and rich parents are claiming this apparent disability for their children in order to become entitled to more time to sit exams and other such perks. Most of these claims rapidly disappear once the offspring have left university and they all do their level best to make it look like they obtained their results on a level playing field, which they didn’t. There is clearly massive fraud going on. There is clearly massive bias in the system as working class parents almost never claim dyslexia for their children and therefore in my view on average their children suffer worse grades than is honourable.
    2. Balance out the appeals system. Again some demographics of parents are appealing results in ridiculous numbers, while others almost never do. Given the high percentage of appeals which result in higher grades this also leads to some demographics on average getting higher results than is fair. I would do something radical like make 10% the appeal rate, and limit schools to appealing 10% of results and any schools which appeal less to automatically have some random appeals applied to bring them up to 10%.
    3. 1 and 2 together with the way schools are allocated are the worst kind of social engineering. Clever kids whatever their background deserve a chance, and kids whatever their talents need a first rate education aimed at their talents.
    4. For O levels I would tend to make it percentage based, so that the top 10% get A, the next 10 % get B and so on. This reduces the chances of grades being manipulated by the folk in charge.
    5. To improve language education you need to start teaching languages in junior schools, the only way to properly learn languages is to be absorbing it when you are most receptive, i.e. years 3 to 10. The way we try to teach languages from scratch when folk join senior school will always fail, and naturally those kids that have been abroad a lot will always win (and that bias for richer parents needs to be watched so that it doesn’t exclude equally clever kids from poor areas who are unlikely to be able to pick up languages so easily).
    6. “To do well in the 6th form students should need some basic knowledge, good skills in maths, English and foreign languages” I don’t agree. For one it would have ruled me out, and for two I don’t think its justified by my experiences in the real world. I got 9 O levels let me think maths, English lang, English lit, religious studies, art, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering drawing no language no geography no history, never the less I regard it still as a fairly balanced set of subjects and more than adequate for sixth form study etc. Don’t try and prescribe what kids need to study too much.
    7. There is a bigger problem with university level education. Young grads in my view are significantly worse than college leavers 20 or 30 years ago. And I mean across the board Oxbridge included.
    8 We need to be careful lots of plagiarism goes on in coursework. And lots of parental help goes in. The dramatically better results for girls in coursework marked elements versus boys needs some thought.
    9 I don’t know if it’s still the same nowadays but nobody in my school ever passed a chemistry practical exam (mainly because the lab equipment was poor quality and dirty) which forced anyone with any common sense to opt for multiple theory papers instead. This kind of bias in the system should also be looked at.
    10 It strikes me that the teacher unions have been quiet through years of grade inflation but now kick up a fuss with a minor about of rebalancing. Not very honourable.
    Fair crack of the whip for everyone please!

    reply: Students of science and maths do need a maths training, and students of the UK humanities need English language. Students of global humanities need as many languages as they can master.

    • Iain Gill
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      on point 1 I would be marking the certificates to indicate the student had extra time for their disability…

    • Iain Gill
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      thanks for the reply

    • zorro
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Some good points Iain….I think that studious use of the internet has had some effect on improved marks but has also made fraud easier. The issue of parents with sharp elbows has always been an issue, and certain fashionable ailments have had an exponential rise when it leads to favoured assessment in exams…..


      • zorro
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        In my work experience, I find that graduates are not short on confidence but sometimes struggle when challenged with reasoned argument. Spelling and grammatical standards are universally poor including supposed senior management positions.


    • lifelogic
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      To reply:

      In my experience very few people, bought up in a single language English speaking family and environment become particularly very good and fluent at languages.

      I think most have to be immersed in languages very early by, for example living in a multi language environment or having mixed language parents and spending some considerable time abroad immersed in it.

      There is very little reason for most English speakers to learn a language well, unless they are going to live there, and anyway how do you know which language(s) to choose?

  13. alan jutson
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Thank god I am out of the education worry, my daughters are way, way past the exam results concerns, and my grandaughter nowhere near them yet.

    I have to say that I am bemused by what has gone on in our education system for the past few decades, but then that is probably because I attended a bog standard Secondary Modern school in West london more than 50 years ago.

    Then it was simple, the subject matter was wide, yes the basics of maths, applied maths, english language , english literature, physics, geography, history, music and religious education (whatever happened to that) were taught from basic level up to O level standard, but they were supplimented with metalwork, woodwork, Physical education, and on occassions even gardening which involved weather check recording and forecasting.

    All results thorought the school year were marked on a simple percentage basis (no grades at all) the better you did, the higher the percentage marks you gained, a pass was set at a particular percentage mark, so everyone knew exactly how well or badly they had done.

    Pray tell me what is wrong with such a simple system.

    The mathematics were relevent to life and involved timetables (railway, buses etc) as well as times tables, valuation involved money/wages rates of pay, material costings, it also involved the working of volumes, and areas of oddball shapes (useful in construction).

    Calculators did not exist so slide rules were used (guessing stick) as were logarithmic tables, all workings had to be shown to show you knew the process of thought and reasoning. Thus mental arithmetic was also regarded as important.

    So much education now does not seem relevent to real life at all, or is it just me.

  14. Martin Cole
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    The so-called “Comment sections” of the Mail yesterday and the Telegraph this morning, on the Winer Fuel Allowance, are instructive as to the purposes behind state education in the UK in 2012. The primary aim seems in the recent past to have been to keep the majority as Ill-informed and ignorant as possible.on the realities of the modern world, particularly regarding the deliberate destruction of the nation states of Europe.

    Their countries have gone yet they do not see it, while the likes of IDS peddle temperature fiddling fantasies, worse even than deliberately confusing Italian language teaching universities, implying that winter cold commences at Dover or possibly the Watford Gap!

  15. Richard1`
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Amongst the O-Levels I sat in the 1970s was ‘Divinity’. It consisted quite literally of rote-learning of St Mark’s Gospel. We learnt essays off by heart, as well as parables and their messages. Our teacher told us that even if everyone wrote exatly the same , the examiner could not not award the grades, so long as plagarism wasnt suspected. In a sign of the times my son has just taken GCSE Religious Knowledge. The ONLY religion he studied in 2 years was Islam.

    • forthurst
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      He might have been better off studying the Talmud.

    • zorro
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Not quite sure why my comment didn’t pass moderation really…..


  16. alan jutson
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I do not know what exactly the education arguments are about, other than grades seem to have gone down a minor percentage in one subject in one year.

    Certainly if the marking or grading has changed mid term, without teacher or pupil knowledge, this is a disgrace.

    But after having decades of so called growth in standards (debatable from interviews I have had with job applicants) why is it a surprise that for one year we get no growth.
    There is no right to education growth year on year, just as there is no right for the economy to grow year on year, or salaries to rise year on year, or profits to rise year on year.

    Given that there are so many different examination boards, given that schools are allowed a degree of freedom (as I understand it) about what and how they teach, you now have a huge amount of variables involved, which can lead to odd results.

    This may seem simple minded thinking, but if you had just one examnation board with one set of standards, and one standard for marking, and schools were made fully aware of the requirements nationwide, then the end results would surely be a more reliable method of measurment for, students, teachers, schools, universities, and employers.

  17. Denis Cooper
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    The magnitude of the row seems out of proportion to the pretty small percentage changes quoted on TV.

    In fact looking at the chart here:


    there was a previous occasion, 1995, when the overall percentage of top grades stood still or maybe dropped very slightly compared to the previous year, but then Labour got the grade inflation going again and that was just a pause in the otherwise inexorable rise from 42% in 1988 to about 70% now.

    Given another twenty years following the trend set under the Labour government and every pupil in the country would have been getting top grades.

    I realise that a small change in the percentage achieving a particular grade will affect thousands of pupils, but that’s only because 658,000 pupils took the exams.

    • uanime5
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      So when a new political party takes office grades go down, the party claims that their new scheme is harder and that grade inflation will end, then grade inflation continues for every other year.

      • Denis Cooper
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        That isn’t what the chart seems to show.

        At the time of the 1997 election the percentage of top grades was coming to a rough plateau in the mid-50’s, it then resumed the earlier upwards trend and by the time of the 2010 election it was close to 70; the curve during the period of the Labour government is actually concave, with the annual rate of increase itself increasing year by year.

  18. Winston Smith
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Yesterday demonstrated how much the Left influence/control the media. The news gave the impression that pupils had been devestated by wholesale grade reduction. It was a massive 0.4% drop in achievement. Yes 0.4%! Yet, we were subjected to unhappy pupils, with some claiming their C grades would have been As or Bs last year. It was ridiculous. Then we have the all the left-wing quangos and Marxist educationalists (looking forward to Rebecca Hanson’s next rant) complaining about political interference. Where have they been for the last 25 years of political interference and the devaluation of school qualfications? Tthis puerile leftie media coverage just encourages an unearned entitlement paranoia amongst man teenagers.

  19. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    A good exam question – applies to GCSE, O level, A level etc – begins with a piece of book learning which all students ought to know, then poses a more difficult problem for which you need the book learning plus deductive reasoning.

    There is a transitional problem in tightening standards – that of making sure that the various examining boards keep in step. For example, it would be no good most boards tightening up if Edexcel continued to ask easy questions.

  20. Bill
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    This is a complicated subject! Many years ago an analysis of GCEs was done and it was found that those who took German tended to do worse than those who took French. The reason it appears was that the students who took German were the best of the linguists. So, all linguists took French as a first foreign language but then the best of them took German also. It was harder to do well in German because one was competing against a tougher set of students. This, of course, is one reason for using criterion referenced exams instead of norm referenced exams.

    It used to be the case that A levels were dovetailed into the first year of university courses so that there was an unbroken staircase from the start of O level at 14 to the end of a degree scheme at the age of about 21. In other words, A level content was controlled by the universities. Once this link was broken, however, the O and A level boards did their own thing and responded to all kinds of other pressures.

    In my view we need to restore a link between universities and A level and at the same time establish a clear link between the requirements of employers. In this way young people would be prepared for going to work at 16 or 18 or, after a degree, for entering the job market at 21.

    • David John Wilson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      My experience was that Germen was taken up by those who weren’t capable of doing Latin, linguists who couldn’t handle Greek and scientists who needed it for university entrance. Each of these meant a lower average linguistic ability than those (everyone) who took French.

    • lifelogic
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Indeed some subjects German/Music/Further Maths have a better general intake of candidates so just publish the percentile position relative to the others and the average percentile score of the candidates (in all their other subjects that year).

      That way the boards have no incentive to devalue grades and everyone knows where they came in the subject and what the average quality of intake, in that subject was.


  21. Mike Stallard
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I started teaching a very long time ago.
    We set our own exams. We marked our own exams. We used textbooks. At the end, people left school for a job knowing how to turn up, how to dress appropriately and, above all, how to listen and learn.
    They were proud to be working, properly prepared for life as they would live it. They had determination. They didn’t like Beethoven. They had no idea who Matisse was. But they did marry, you could trust them and they had a future without being in debt.
    Clever boys and girls were syphoned off to do homework, to go to University and to prepare for GCE, A Level and then go into one of the professions where the deal was that you got little money but lots of kudos.
    They were also brought up deliberately Anglican with daily assembly, hymns and prayers, so they had that to hang on to. This “ethos” defeated Russian and German Socialism. We were proud of that.

    Now that is gone so it is not good enough to remember what went on when we were at school. The “goal posts have moved”. Mr Blunkett set out to wreck the system. In that he fully succeeded.

    • alan jutson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink


      Agree with muh of this.

      Daily assembly, discipline, respect, time keeping, life skills, attitude to work, educated to be able to earn a living, to be a team member so you think of others, but at the same time to welcome competition, school house sports, inter school sports, history (so we know were we come from and the sacrifices of others). etc, etc.

      At the end you took exams, and coursework where you got help, did not count, you were on your own.

      Seems to me most of these values are now lost, or perhaps I am getting old !

  22. Roy Grainger
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Why assign grades at all ? Just tell each pupil what their actual mark out of 100 was in each subject, then as long as the tests are of the same difficulty each year it means employers and higher education establishements can rank pupils of different ages however they like.

    • alan jutson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink



      Its such a simple solution.

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      You can’t make the tests exactly the same. However, it isn’t difficult for exam boards to rescale them by comparing results gained by samples of the same pupils sitting previous exams as mocks.

  23. Acorn
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    It is a pity we don’t have four year high schools / junior colleges, covering Key Stage 4 and 5 alone; (Key Stage 3 is when the education system goes off the rails).

    You could fashion them into academic; technical and trades streams. Particularly with BTEC OND and ONC for the latter two respectively. I assume we are still putting the compulsory school age up to 18 by 2015??? Properly formulated technical and trade colleges are needed doing HND and HNC qualifications as part of technical and trade skills learning with a high degree of “on site time”. You need at least three separate streams. The Spanish started loosing teachers when seventeen year olds who didn’t want to be in school till eighteen, caused havoc with those that did.

    Just now, my paper-boy was explaining the deference between AS and A2 which appear to add up to A level, I think. Still, I can rest assured that the young lady who served me my coffee yesterday, has a BA(Hons) Eng. Lit. It would have made my day if she had had a BA(Hons) Jaguar Fuel Injection. Fortunately the dealer had an enthusiastic Non BA(Hons) young lad who had done the factory course on the very subject.

    It’s like that old story where the three arts graduates are waiting in their cold flat for the BTEC plumber to arrive. I bet that plumber will earn more in his working life than those graduates.

    • alan jutson
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink


      Enjoyed the last paragraph.

      Indeed HNC, HND worth more than many University Degrees.

      • Bazman
        Posted August 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        In the real world a HND is pretty much worthless. I spent two years doing one when I had nothing better to do. Employers are zero interested in the qualification and just ask what you have been doing previously. It is really just a qualification allowing you to do a degree. Which could be another two years wasted.

  24. Mike Wilson
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    What is it with government? It seems congenitally incapable of doing ANYTHING properly.

    Setting up an exam system with one board for everyone with consistent exam setting and marking ought to be quite straightforward.

    Put government in the mix and, as always, complexity, inefficiency and sheer uselessness follow as sure as night follows day.

    Enough to make you weep. Why was that in my day (the 1960s) everyone knew that an A in O Level Maths meant you were very good at Maths. What does it mean now? No-one knows!

  25. Wokingham Parent
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    John, I am very glad to see you say “It is unfair on those taking the exams if they do not know what is expected, or if the standards change between the time they start and the time they finish without them knowing it. It is particularly unfair if someone needs a C or higher in a GCSE to go on to further study, and has just failed to get this through some unannounced change in the standard required.” I whole heartedly agree. I think it is best practice to let students know how they will be measured so they can work out how to achieve it. If we tell somone how high they should jump and they do it, isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that success? Why shouldn’t more students be achieving well year on year – don’t we want an improving society? Isn’t that something to celebrate?

    My son is one of those who has been told all through secondary school that he would achieve a grade C at English (AQA) GCSE. He has worked so hard. He missed out on a C by just a few marks. He will have to retake in order to have a resonable prospect of gaining employment after College, which not only wastes his time but costs in terms of additional teacher’s time and School/College resources.

    What can we do to get this year’s English GCSE results revised? Please John can you help?

    Reply: I suggest you take the matter up with the school, who will advise on how to appeal and whether an appeal is a good idea. If the school think I can help, please let me know.

  26. Alan Wheatley
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    “O levels required a lot of learning by rote…”

    I do not know what O-Levels your are referring to, but I think that did not apply to the eight O-Levels I took in the mid sixties. At a Secondary Modern school, by the way.

  27. Matthew
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that learning by rote, within reason, is a bad idea.

    It enables children of GCSE age to learn the fundamentals the building blocks that you need to hand in later studies. Sure information can be easily looked up, like capitals of the world, the question is would they look it up?
    I did think that the system where the teachers had old exam papers going back to the year dot, would say “This question hasn’t come up for three years, it may be due this year.” Was not the best system.
    Even in later life accountancy exams didn’t provide much room for creativity, so much had to be crammed in.
    The fall in standards this year should probably be considered a normal event within the vicissitudes of life. Never ending progress is much more suspicious.

    I don’t know if the standards of difficulty have slipped. It is important that there is a bar or standard that is maintained at a constant in the marking process.

    It is so unfair on youngsters to have worked hard, achieved the best grades that they are capable of achieving and then be told that the exams have been dumbed down.
    Then cut out some of the fringe subjects – drama and dance – great though they may be its questionable if they’re suitable for examination.

  28. merlin
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    One aspect of GCSE/A/AS/degrees/higher degrees which I encountered when I went for job interviews etc which I personally objected to was that after you successfully passed your relevant qualifications you were then given further tests to carry out i.e spatial reasoning, IQ tests, verbal reasoning. So why did I spend x number of years being educated to have to undergo further testing? I am now going back a few years and things may have changed, but it shows that employers do not have any confidence in any form of education up to highter degree level anyway. If you join the police force you have to take a futher exam. The point I am making is that what is the point of all this education if the employers have no confidence in the system anyway, which they don’t appear to. For me the priority in education is straightforward you should leave school with the following skills:-

    1) to be able to read

    2) to be able to write

    3) to be able to add,subtract,divide and multiply

    4) to be able to communicate effectively

    5) to be able to sustain a conversation

    There are large numbers of state educated students that would fail all five requirements

    • lifelogic
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Very true, certainly the last one I find.

  29. Mactheknife
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Having had two children go through GCSE’s in recent years and having seen the level the course work and exams were pitched at they fall well short of what I had to do for my O Levels.

    A lot of modern GSCE’s have been boiled down to no more than multiple choice questions and even my children admitted it was much easier to “have a clue what the answer is” as you get with multiple choice questions.

    However thinking back to O Levels one of the issues for me was that they were designed to find out what you didn’t know rather than what you did. You were also not allowed to have any kind of aid, therefore learning by rote was inevitable. I always thought this is a stupid situation as in your working life there are always aids to use so you don’t have to memorise formulae etc.

    Now getting back to the current situation, it would seem no coincidence that grades for 16 and 18 year olds are down and that various government spokesman have mentioned grade inflation, reducing the number of university courses and places etc.

    I have no particular problem with this, because how many more “media studies” students do we need? My problem is that it seems obvious something has been done by the “back door” by Gove and Willets without informing schools or pupils.

    • libertarian
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      Whilst agreeing with a number of your points I must point out and this isn’t aimed at you alone as a number of people have mentioned it.

      The figures for the last 3 years show that the highest percentage ( 70 %) of graduates who found paid full time work within 6 months of leaving University where in fact MEDIA STUDIES graduates.

      The reason for this is quite simply that in the real world of the 21st century, blogging, the internet, social media marketing, you tube, video skills, advertising, marketing, pr, content management, web site scripting, crowd sourcing are all in high demand. I’ve deliberately left out of that the older professions that are also covered, journalism, feature writing, radio and TV work.

      The real reason though is that media studies is the nearest discipline we have to emotional intelligence and EQ is what the vast majority of employers really need .

      • Mactheknife
        Posted August 27, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Completely disagree. What we need are innovators such as engineers, mathematicians, scientists etc. We need to grow our “knowledge based economy” and at the same time reinvigorate manufacturing . That is the only way to provide long term prospects across all of the population.

  30. Alan Wheatley
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    “To do well in the 6th form students should need some basic knowledge, good skills in maths, English and foreign languages depending on their choice of 6th form course…”

    Why pick “a foreign language”? Why not physics, or history or geography, or any number of other subjects that can be considered core to a particular direction in higher education?

    All children are not alike. They have a wide range of aptitude and interest. The fundamental objective of education should be to get the best from all children, and every child’s education should attempt to tease out abilities across a wide range possibilities and get the best from them accordingly.

    The curse of educational dictate over many decades has been to apply the latest bright idea to all children irrespective of its appropriateness to them individually.

    There is no point in ramming, say, a foreign language down the throats of children who have no aptitude for and no interest in such a thing.

    • a-tracy
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      I agree with you, it is a curse that rather than allowing children to concentrate on their strengths and personal growth we want to return to fixating on a small narrow curriculum that suits academics. Relentless focus on people’s shortcomings is often at the bottom of truanting and bad school experiences children that fall behind.

      Why must we concentrate on all English children supporting the German and French languages because their schools don’t offer sufficient other choice? I learnt French as an adult from choice I didn’t enjoy the language at school and the method of teaching and prospered much better when I wanted to learn it.

      • Iain Gill
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

        having been through the system all the way to being a senior post grad student i never once missed not having a language O level.

        nor do i feel a history O level was a gap, or indeed anything else i didnt do at O level

        i was a swot anyways and read widely

        having worked abroad a lot, including Italy where I picked up enough Italian to get by, I never once missed not having a language O level, and anyways Italian was never taught at my school even if I had chosen to study a language

        im married to a foreigner and have picked up enough of her language to get by, and her language isnt on school timetables in this country

        i think the whole language fixation is just another attempt by the richer classes to artificially explain why their kids deserve higher education places while clever kids from working class areas do not. if you have been to cannes every summer through your childhood you would have to be thick not to speak french…

        on the other hand languages is probably the one thing a clever swot in a sink school will struggle to achieve in by sheer determination and saturdays and holidays in the library

        maths and english yes, everything else just balance the arts and science subjects but leave it to the kids as much as practical to choose

        indeed in my wifes country they specialise much earlier and she studied only arts subjects from 12 years old onwards, doesnt seem to have done her any harm or the commerce of the country she is from and harm either. we are a bit set in our ways here.

        Reply: If you wish to read literature, foreign language literature or history at university being able to read appropriate foreign languages is part of the course. Good English literature courses require Anglo Saxon, and latin is also helpful. English history requires medieval latin and court French for anything pre the “modern” era. Continental literature courses require fluency in the languages to be studied.

        • Iain Gill
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          I am all for improving language standards in this country. The only way to do that is to start teaching languages at infant and junior school (and radically improving language teaching in the sink and middling schools ideally by using native speakers to teach). Its completely pointless demanding a language O level from the brightest kids going to a sink school as the system is currently set up its never going to happen, you will just put a glass ceiling on that talent pool. I agree there are lots of areas of study that need languages, but there are many that do not.

        • Alan Wheatley
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

          There is nothing wrong with learning French, or any other foreign language, at school. If it is necessary for a child’s future plans then it is obviously a subject to tackle. Achieving a good standard in a foreign language is something to be applauded in any event.

          What is wrong, and this is my point, is that it just because a foreign language is a sensible subject for some children it does not follow that ALL children should be forced to study one.

          Biology, or Chemistry, or Metalwork (etc, there is a long list) could be far more appropriate for some children as being more relevant to their futures, and also maintaining their interest and helping to make school something they want to attend.

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      A foreign language is most easily acquired when very young (that’s when we all acquire our first language anyway!). Once you have more than one language, adding others is less hard, particularly if it is from the same linguistic family. Languages with different writing systems and unusual pronunciation features do add another level of complexity.

  31. Mark
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    As far as I understand it there has been no change as yet in the underlying syllabus but only in the banding of grades and marks, coupled with perhaps a slightly more rigorous marking scheme (e.g. penalising spelling mistakes).

    The process we have seen over the past 30-40 years has comprised gradual erosion of standards through dumbing down the syllabus and compounding that by reducing the pass marks and severity of the marking scheme and making question easier to answer. That’s actually been unfair to the latest generations, who find that their qualifications are not valued by employers, and that they are unable to do the tests employers set to check whether a potential employee has sufficient aptitude.

    It also costs them in lifetime earning potential, because even where they have innate ability they have to spend extra time in the education system developing and proving it compared with their forbears. Over all, the system appears to require an extra 2 years compared with before the erosion of standards started – A levels seem roughly equivalent to old O levels, and old A level material is deferred to university.

    The extra time that the education system now takes to raise students to an equivalent level of competence is also a burden on taxpayers and parents who pay for it in extra teachers and classrooms. It is becoming a burden on the students themselves, who now have to incur a liability for university tuition fees to learn things previously taught in schools.

    Demographic trends are going to impose an increased cohort size going through the school system. The increasing laxity in standards has previously only been possible without extensive building because of reducing pupil numbers providing the classroom space. Foolishly, there is a commitment to lower standards via the move to increasing the school leaving age to 18: as Parkinson explained, the work expands to fill the time available. These will combine in a pincer to increase education spending sharply unless education standards are restored.

    It would be far better for those of limited academic potential to leave school before 18 and start gaining experience of the world of work – perhaps via apprenticeship or otherwise. That way, schools are not being used as daycare nannies and children who know they are not learning anything much will not be around to disrupt the education of others. Earning instead of (not) learning will help bring down the budget deficit.

    As to the exams themselves: it really doesn’t make sense to try to restore standards in creeping fashion over many years. It’s much better to have a clean break – and soon. That should be allied with a return to a lower minimum school leaving age, freeing up classroom space and teacher time for the larger following cohorts that immigration has imposed on us. A return to O levels? Possibly not, but certainly far more demanding exams are needed. Gove has the right idea about that.


    To complete the picture, those who have suffered the dumbed down system should have a fair chance to catch up. That means re-allocating the tertiary education effort away from degrees that won’t pay for themselves to remedial education. The logi to remove control of tertiary education from Willetts in the BIS and give it to Gove in a joined up Education Department is surely compelling.

  32. a-tracy
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    This year my son completed his Masters, my daughter completed her A levels and my youngest son completed his GCSEs. It has been a high pressure year.

    My eldest son didn’t feel that A level Maths, additional units in Decision Maths and Mechanics plus A level Further Maths prepared him well for his Maths degree, he attended a top 3 maths University and achieved a first. He is very adverse to GCSE maths being dumbed down to basic arithmetic and thinks there should be two GCSE maths choice paths to follow, one for those intending further academic study and one for those who need maths life skills only with more practical application skills taught.

    As an employer – if you change the marking methods, making GCSE top grades harder to achieve, the year you undertake that process should have the GCSE name changed to the English &/or Welsh Secondary Exams or similar so that we know when comparing with other year groups, especially as many children D grades this year could be coming out sooner into the workplace unless they resit as they need grade C’s for Higher Study.

    • libertarian
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      Totally agree

  33. David Boon
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    In 1988 is sat the very first GCSE exams. A examination system introduced so that nobody failed. We had at that time the most number of unqualified people in employment in Europe, so how do you get that statistic turned round without mass investment? Simple introduce a exam you cant fail & where you get ‘graded’ & so everybody gets a GCSE qualification of some level. NVQ’s where introduced to do the same in higher education , why spend 1 day a week at college when somebody from the training body could come round , watch you use the disc sander or band saw for 20 minustes & then tell you are competent at using it, & then give you a certificate at the end of the yar to prove it. The whole education system was absed upon cheapening it down , cost cutting & time saving to fool industry & the students into believing they are good at it, when in fact they’ve barely touched the surface so you get what you pay for.

    My wife who works for SureStart did the old DCE in childcare which meant she had to do a fair amount of theory work on child development & write the essays/ do the reasearch. They replaced that with the NVQ system, out went the theory & in came the work basesd assesements. The nursery nurse proffesion had under Labour started to be graduatised in order to lift its importance & enhance its ability to train & retrain staff in a long hours , low pay industry/ & so she undertook the EY foundation degree , doddle for those that had done the old courses , the essays of 2-3000 words , the bibliography , but its interesting that all those that had only done the NVQ’s all quit after the first 2-4 months as they had no idea on how to write essays / do the research etc.

    We used the old O’level /CSE course books as there where no GCSE books to work from, the teachers didnt have much idea of what was going on, the old pro’s where leaving in their droves sick of the de-profesionalising of their trade by a government / dogma that seemed intent on samshing the unions rather than making the industry better. A theme that seemed to be at the heart of Thatchers class war / divide & conquer mantra to turn the nation on its self.( Mrs T did not want class war and did want opportunity for all-ed)

    The government rushed the GCSE in 1988 , the unions said 1989 would have been better as it would have given them more time to prepare , get the text boks in that where designed for the coursework , which i found to be a true test of peoples ability. Basing 2 years work on one 2 hour exam is total rubbish. I found that the coursework gave me a good grounding of what was to come at college & later at art college / university. My time at school was just a waste , i learned far more off my parents & at furniture college / art college & university. School was just soemthing you endured, the subjects just totaly irrelevant to what the outside world was all about , whereas at the colleges you where surrounded by like minded people ,all with a passion for their subjects, whereas at school you where surrounded by bored idiots & so the ones that wanted to learn etc where being sidetracked by the loons. When the loons would have been better off learning out vehicle maintainence, gardening etc.

    Unfortunatley the education system in this country is far to geared towards trying to fit square pegs into round holes. 210 misfits in a school year is a recipie for disaster. The school year isnt designed round industry or a real work ethic. Taking your child away on holiday for 4 -10 days isnt the end of the world, industry copes when employees leave for their breaks so why cant a school? The whole schoolday is threadbare. Maths at 1pm after lunch on a boiling hot afternoon, i mean seriously? School should start at 8am for academic study till 12.30-1pm & then onwards it should be sport, arts , practical stuff for the boys like engineering , gardening/ grounds work / hobby projects. Food & drink / sexual health / personal wellbeing also needs to be taught so that we are not producing the next generation of stressed out zombies consigned to a life of single parenthood, boredom , alcoholism & all the other trappings that have consumed this nation. Given the mass de-inductrialisation programme that Thatcher embalked upon & the way that Mr Lawson turned us into a service economy then it was always a given that the education system would become a polarised affair of turning out the zombies for the menial , MW jobs in the shops & restaurants etc & the ever decreasing numbers required to fill the skilled posts could be found from the elite schools. (The shift from industry to services continued under Labour in the 1970s and 00s as well as in the 1980s-ed)

    The policys of the 80’s haunt us every which way we turn. Coal is the worlds 2nd largest export commodity, no other country in the world sits upon such a vast reserve of natuaral rescourses & doenst use them, but like everything else in those years dont invest, dont get people on board to make the changes to modernise & improve , just antagonise , create battles to win ideological wars , sell everything off , cheapen everything down , while watching the costs go through the roof & so we are where we are now, run by garderners who dont plant seeds , but blame the soil when nothing grows , dutifuly out with their shovels ploughing the same old furrow of failiure in hoc to ‘profit’ free market ideology that private does best.

  34. Winston Smith
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    What % of pupils taking GCSEs are given extra time in exams for ‘learning difficulties’?

  35. forthurst
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    What is the situation now? Universities are having to give remedial and foundation courses for students of academic subjects because the A level exams have not prepared them to university entrance level. At the same time, students applying for places at the most prestigious institutes of higher learning are being abitrarily turned away because although they would have achieved top grades, there would be very many others in the same category. Foreign students are taking the more difficult International versions of our exams which are also set by our own exam boards and have a consequent advantage at the pre-university level. A pass ‘equivalent’ to an O level requires one of the top three (four) grades. Children with the highest levels of intellectual ability are taking the same exams as those with the lowest. Employers complain of a lack of basic skills in the three Rs . Schools are being deemed failing if < 40% pass a requisite no of GCSEs.

    A level syllabuses need to be enhanced and extended to fully prepare students for university work. Furthermore, the ability to obtain top grades should indicate truly excepetional abilities. In order for this to be achieved, the GCSE needs improving likewise so that students can comfortably address A level with a two year course. Furthermore, the GCSE syllabus in major subjects needs to ensure that employers do not have reason to complain about incapacity at the three Rs and nor that those whose later courses of higher study are in other subjects, are not compromised by a total ignorance in comprehension or execution when needing those auxilliary skills. Scientists should not write jargon incompehensible to their colleagues; BBC journos should not all be functionally innumerate.

    The old system where eg someone with poor academic skills but an ambition to become PM would finish up with only 0-2 O levels to his name was clearly unsuitable; students need some form of certification to define what they can do rather than what they can't. Therefore there can be no return to the old O level exclusively. On the other hand, there is such a yawning gulf between the inductive capacities and reasoning abilities of students at opposite ends of the intellectual scale that expecting both to follow the same syllabuses and sit the same exams is unreasonable: some are overstretched and others, the opposite.
    The solution is to continue to call it the GCSE, but to have different syllabuses for students according to how academic they are ranging from the totally theoretical to the totally practical. Then the full range of grading will be available for all students. At the same time it might be appropriate to re-introduce the 11+, not to force LEAs (or whoever) to introduce grammars if they don't want to, but to define an obligation to those authorities to provide appropriately academic courses to those according to their performance and to ensure that schools are judged not in absolute terms but in their relative achievements with the material with which they are supplied.

    The current system which is providing this country with too few mathematicians, scientists, engineers, doctors, linguists, plumbers, electricians, bakers, candlestickmakers etc and wasting students time and money on rubbish courses like Media Studies, Sociology and Psychology and other courses in leftie rantology needs to end.

  36. English Pensioner
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I was told a few weeks ago by a pupil at our local grammar school that “we don’t have to learn facts any longer because we can look them up in Wikipedia if necessary”. She apparently got her expected grades, so what has she learnt?
    A twenty-something year old graduate, being interviewed for a post by my son-in-law, couldn’t understand why the time in Berlin, Sydney and Toronto should be different from that here in England and why he could not just pick up the phone and and talk to them any time during office hours.
    It seems that the lack of general knowledge in all fields is a major problem these days based on the erroneous assumption that one can always look up facts if necessary. So Physics, for example, is no longer about learning the various laws of physics, but waffling about green energy or recycling. If you asked a modern physics student about, say, the “Law of conservation of Energy” you’d probably be told it concerns the regulations for double glazing and loft insulation!

    Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Being a person that has taken no exams in the 1950’s but nevertheless achieved a continued A stream education as we called it in those days, I have enjoyed my life. Have ran many businesses, owned a few, still have one now as I go up to 70years young. Been a police officer, NHS manager, Health Committee member, Local Councilor, almost a PPC 2 years ago. My advice would be to teach the children how to conduct themselves in public, becuase no matter what qualification you hold, if you are terse in your approach no employer will take you on. let me give an example, yesterday I drove to anew customer, yes still get them, and I passed a Job Centre, there were around 20 youngsters sitting on the wall and steps, why I don’t know, but one young lady caught my eye, she stood on her own, her hair was set in a pleasing manner, her cloths were apt for an interview. Now if I were interviewing this young lady, before she opened her mouth, she would get 100% for appearance?-I say teach these youngsters the subjects I would have been taught in the 1950’s, then add style, apply their teachings to in a workshop ‘working’ environment, what would be expected of a potential employee at say being a Clerk, they would need to be able to read, add up, acceptable telephone approach, able to use a computer, now all that person has to do now with all that knowledge, is apply it to the employers business, no matter him seelling cars, toilet rolls, that applicant is READY?
    My extra schooling came from day release and evening classes, yes that we paid for even on low salary…..and I didn’t pass my 11 plus either, so these grades mean nothing, your whole life is in front of you..application is what’s needed, all the education in the world won’t do you any good if you cannot apply it to anything?-Look at the Scottish Dragon, Ice cream seller and now educated people come to him for a loan to start a business?

  38. Atlas
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Being also of the O Level, A level era I like John find it difficult to know what is the best. I view modern Education as an application of Socialism, introduced in the 1960s by a failure of a Labour Government, so I’m already prejudiced – especially when Thatcher finished the job ( I didn’t realise she was a Harman ‘sister’ !).

    Thatcher’s attack on the Student grant seemed to show that her only aim was to crush her vocal opponents – I don’t think education ever came into her mind.

    Overall, if the education system cannot produce a generation that is capable of paying its way in the globalised world economy, then we are stuffed.

    Reply: Why do you blame Mrs T? She did not introduce student loans. Mr Blair and Mr Brown did that, followed by Dr Cable.

    • Sebastian Weetabix
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      This is not correct. The student loan started around 1990, if I remember correctly, shortly before Mrs Thatcher was replaced by that nice Mr Major. Blair & Brown gave us tuition fees and finished off the student grant but let’s not pretend that it was Sylvan bliss before those 2 fools arrived in Downing St.

      reply: In 1990-91 Thatcher/Major introduced top up loans for living costs as well as maintenance grants. It was Labour who abolished maintenance grants for all but the poorest, and who introduced tuition fees backed by loans.

      • zorro
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

        This was because of their ruinous and mad policy of 50% must go to university on pain of death…..


    • Atlas
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Thank you John, I stand corrected. However I see from the comments that I was correct to remember that Thatcher/Major started the end of the maintenance grant.

      I note that 50% of the population going to University means that a Degree has to be compatible with an IQ of 100. Yet in the 1970s getting a degree from Oxbridge meant an IQ of about 140. At the same time the present (and previous) Government claims that all Degrees are equal in merit. Inconsistent??

  39. Don Sayers
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Surely if the GCSE is a criteria assessed exam, “if you can do so and so, or understand so and so, then you get the mark,” as it was introduced to be, then a rising pass rate year by year is a good thing? It shows that more and more of our children are achieving the basic skills required.

    The exam boards need to be carefully monitored (I am sure they are) to make sure that standards are maintained. I am not in favour of only one board, that give way too much political control of the education system, I would favour a return to the days of the old University boards, at least then mistakes on papers were a rarity. What we cannot have is a moving of the goalposts mid year, this is grossly unfair.

    I perhaps, do not think that is such a good idea for A-levels, the universities need to, or want to know how a candidate stands in relationship to that year’s cohort, is he in the top 5% or top 1%? Having said that A-levels are not suitable for all and other courses need to be developed.


  40. Barry
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I am not convinced that the old O level English is a particularly good model for the future. My English lessons in the 50s both in a Grammar School and then in a Public School did not equip me well for my working life. There was a preponderance of Shakespeare readings and countless related discussions.

    My main interest was in the sciences and I went onto obtain a PhD. My English skills were adequate for creating written material that would be read by others with similar science backgrounds. Problems arose when I had to provide reports to the non-scientific community including the Cabinet Office during the early 70s. Given the importance of the readers, all my work was rewritten so that it could be more easily understood.

    During the 80s, I worked in the States and was helped by American ex-English teachers who quickly showed me how to produce quality written material.

    Not long after this I was directing the efforts of a number of UK Professors who were producing proposals for scientific research. Their English was inadequate and rather like mine a few years before. I discovered it was possible to reapply my recent lessons in English for the Professors who displayed rapid and dramatic improvement.

    In the years after this, I have been continually dealing with the problems of poor written work from Graduates and Post Graduates caused by a lack of basic English written skills. In almost all cases these problems are easily fixed.
    In conclusion, I believe that there has been a long period of inadequate English teaching in this country. Those interested in Shakespeare may disagree.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      I agree entirely.

      Perhaps there should be an “technical” equivalent to the English Literature course and exam. So there would be the core part of English which everyone studied, and then the option of specialisation in literature for the budding Shakespeares or technical English for those who will do the real work.

    • Alison
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I don’t think you’ve explained precisely what the problem was. I did Oxford & Cambridge ‘O’ Levels in the 1960s and English was divided into English Language and English Literature. I assume it was the same in the 1950s, but perhaps I’m mistaken. English Lit was not exclusively Shakespeare, even then, and Shakespeare certainly didn’t encroach upon English Lang, which was entirely separate.

      It seems to me that your problem was an inability to put yourself in the position of the reader when producing scientific documents. In my career I’ve also been tasked with producing written work of a technical nature but it never occurred to me that ‘O’ level English should have provided me with training for something which is largely an attitude of mind.

  41. Bert Young
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Very few responses have mentioned the importance of History . No doubt that many of the difficulties and mistakes made today are the result of not paying attention to the past . In my day it was School Certificate and Higher School Certificate ; if you obtained five credits or five distinctions in the range of subjects of your School Certificate , you “matriculated” . The sixth form was divided into “Modern” or “Science” with a minimum of five subjects in the specialisation . University entrance was based on the minimum standard of “matriculation” , but , usually on the results of ones Higher School Certificate and the particular written and verbal tests at some of the Universities . Only 25% of those who had “matriculated” or obtained a Higher School Certificate , went on to University ; the remainder who “passed” either went to Technical Colleges , or , to further vocational establishments . The system was effective in establishing high standards and , in directing individuals towards areas of particular interest and skills . I do not believe that the present system provides our community with effectively prepared individuals for the challenges ahead of them , or , results that can be relied on by prospective employers or further education establishments . So , Dr. JR , I think one should take a lesson from History and return to the way things used to be in my day . As for me , after my National Service ( by the way – a good thing ), I became a Teacher and , at the age of 25 years , a Headmaster . At 30 years of age I left the teaching profession did a Business Degree and became a Consultant with , perhaps , the most highly regarded Management Consultancy ; two more years down the line , I established my own organisation and spread it around the world . My education was both broad and specific ; it enabled me to face major challenges , face levels of adversity and competition and , come out very satisfied and “on top” . I commend it to you and those involved in creating change for the better .

  42. Blithespirit
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I am an English teacher in a State school, Oxbridge educated with most of the cabinet and am really concerned by the lack of understanding here.
    The issue with these English exams is not the fact that the grades have declined but that the rules were changed during the game!
    The students have two opportunities to sit the exam; January and June. If, as in my school, the cohort sat in January, a C was awarded once the student had met the criteria for a C. This would, at the least, have given the student 43 marks. In June, even if the student gained the C on the criteria, the Grade boundary was raised by 10 marks (AQA) to 53 so the student who would have got a C in January , would not have gained it in June. This is patently unfair as in the same year, the students’ grades are dependent, not on hard work but on when they took the exam. Arbitrary to say the least!

    The issue is not one of marking; the issue is that the rules were changed mid game so we, as teachers, utterly dedicated to our students, knew that they were at ‘C’ level, but due to arbitrary boundaries set, we suspect, by the Examination boards responding to political pressure, are looking at the faces of disappointed students. It is blatantly unfair. At least with ‘O’ levels, we knew they were norm referenced. This is norm referencing in sheep’s clothing!

    • Credible
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      John, if this really is what has happened it is quite ridiculous and intervention is needed to reverse the unfairness.

      Like most others commenting I’m in favour of stopping the grade inflation. There needs to be discrimination between students at the higher grades, but it has to be done sensibly and thoughtfully and certainly not midway through a school year.

      My oldest child is now entering secondary school and I’m concerned that he will become a pawn in some politicised educational experiment over the next few years.

    • libertarian
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      Exactly right, its disgraceful and I think Gove must be held to account for this fiasco.

      When will politicians stop meddling in things ?

  43. john harmsen
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    An interesting article. We need wholesale reform when it comes to our exam system.
    GCSEs should go and the OLD O level must be re-instated. I am a retired classics’teacher who taught Latin and some Greek for over thirty five years. I can honestly say that the
    present A level Latin is less demanding than the OLD O level. The same is,no doubt, true
    with Greek,although I haven’t seen any papers for that subject since 2001. Course work
    must also go and we must return to a simple pass/fail system with the usual grades
    A to D. Our present exam system has been totally devalued by left wing liberal educationalists and politicians. Our youngsters of today deserve something better.

    • libertarian
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      As an employer I’m afraid I have absolutely no use for latin greek or any other classic subject ( by all mens study these things out of interest and as a basis for other language/thinking skills). What I do want an urgently need isn’t taught in schools and in the 21st century its disgraceful. We need IT systems, web development, engineering, communication and financial management skills. I also vehemently disagree about coursework, nothing in life or work is a one hit wonder. You can take a driving test multiple times until you pass. I want to see a record of sustained engagement and achievement not cramming and two hours of answering some set questions.

      I do agree with you that our youngsters deserve something far better, they deserve an education fit for the 21st century not the 15th. They deserve to be engaged with topics and subjects relevant to their lives and their future

  44. merlin
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    There are basically 2 types of intelligence

    1) intellectual intelligence which the education system thinks is the most important

    2) emotional intelligence which the education system completely ignores which is probably the most important form of intelligence

    Obtaining qualifications is okay but experience and emotional intelligence are far more important in the long term.

    To put it simply the education system in general does not work but the people who designed and now run it are incapable of changing it.

    Private education is successful, comprehensive education has been the most unsuccessful form of education ever invented.

    • libertarian
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      As an employer I totally and utterly agree. I hire many highly paid people, I NEVER ever ask about their educational qualifications. I need emotional intelligence. Attitude, vision, empathy, communication and attitudinal skills every time.

      School/college/university do not attempt to develop emotional intelligence .

      Funnily enough private schools do develop it but do not see it as particularly valuable in the league tables of academic results

    • uanime5
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      Firstly emotional intelligence is the ability to determine the emotions of yourself and others. It was introduced so that those who scored badly on IQ tests could say they were intelligent in another way, even though it doesn’t measure intelligence and is akin to a personality test.

      Secondly while EI is useful in when communicating with others it is useless when trying to solve problems. It also doesn’t help with reading, writing, counting, researching, or planning.

      Finally private education is “successful” because schools for the rich are better funded than schools for the majority. Private schools are also more selective and can reject troublesome pupils, state schools cannot.

      • libertarian
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Totally wrong

        EQ has multiple levels of different intelligence types , please go and read the work of Howard Gardener Prof of Education at Harvard and the original producer of this work. He uncovered these intelligences when analysing why so many academically gifted people failed in the real world. EQ covers 7-9 different types of intelligent behaviours

        Sorry you have no idea how to solve problems, no wonder you aren’t very good at getting your arguments right. Give me an outgoing communicative researcher anytime

        You don’t have a clue about private schools. If you really think there aren’t troublemakers, druggies, crooks and other ne’do wells at private schools you are deluded

      • Sebastian Weetabix
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        The pupils at those schools are usually the offspring of intelligent, aspirational parents with books in the house, which is probably the biggest advantage of all.

  45. Richard
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Consistency is important. Employers need to know how to compare applicants for jobs in different years and this is not easy if the exams students take are altered every few years.

    In a sense it doesn’t really matter what the grades are because it is a process of elimination when for example 300 students apply for 150 places.
    When I did A levels you needed two B’s and a C or three B’s to get onto a degree course, now we are looking at two A’s and a B or even 3 A’s.

    In my day (please excuse the cliche) six or seven O levels at B and C grades was deemed a good result, now 9 more GCSE’s at A or B grade is deemed a similar result.
    Grade inflation or better teaching or better brighter students or perhaps a combination of all three, who knows?
    So my request would be to adjust, but not to revolutionise the curent GCSE and A level system.

    • Iain Gill
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      its fairly easy to get modern students to sit old O level papers from years gone by. i think a little such sampling would prove grade inflation quickly.

    • libertarian
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      Your points about the lack of consistency in grading is exactly right

  46. libertarian
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as an employer, a representative of businesses and an expert in the field of employment I can tell you that after 20 odd years of meddling that the GCSE and A level exams are now no longer fit for purpose and are considered a joke by employers. I can also tell you that 85% of all degrees from university are seen in the same light.

    Whilst the politicians and quangocrats have been interfering with the exam system we have not remotely addressed the content of teaching/learning. Still 50 years after it became an obvious need we do not teach IT development, programming and architecture/engineering in school No wonder our country can no longer compete effectively. Its a disgrace.

    Rather than plonk about with academies there should be an immediate return to grammar schools, technical schools and vocational schools and a wholesale revamping of the syllabus to make it relevant for the 21st century.

    • alan jutson
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink



      Fit for purpose education has been going backwards for 40-50 years.

      It has been masked by grade inflation.

  47. Monty
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    We have a number of different problems within the education system, and they all need to be vanquished before any real improvement will emerge. These problems include:

    1. Significant grade inflation.
    2. Subversion of standards by examination boards touting for business from schools.
    3. Subversion of standards by allowing coursework, and modular tests, to influence exam grades.
    4. Invention of spurious courses like “combined science” which have little or no scientific observation, measurement, analysis or deduction. They are only there to pad out the GCSE score of the school.
    5. The failure of the primary schools to ensure the basic numeracy and literacy of the children they send to the comprehensive schools.

    There are a few others. But in summary, let me just say this: Our education system is delinquent and degenerate. It will take a lot more than re-introduction of exam rigour to fix it.

  48. uanime5
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    I do wonder what purpose GCSEs will serve when the age at which you can leave school is raised to 18 and everyone will be taking A-levels. Perhaps they’ll be a new qualification.

    I also feel that the focus on exams, rather the coursework is a bad idea. You can pass exams with rote learning but you can’t write a good essay using it. Essays require research and critical thinking.

    In other news here are some fun facts about the Work Programme from the DWP:

    1) 24% of those on the Work Programme are signing off.

    2) There’s a major problem with people signing off for a few weeks, then signing back on to avoid the Work Programme.

    The same problem occurs in the Mandatory Work Activity where 46% either sign off or fail to participate.

    • Lindsay McDougall
      Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      You can’t pass an exam of adequate difficulty by learning by rote. A good exam question starts off with a bit of book learning, the minor part of the question, and follows with problems that require deductive reasoning as well. ‘A’ levels used to be like that before you lefties dumbed them down.

      Nor were A levels the most difficult exams. The Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board ran S or Scholarship level exams. These were pitched at discovering who was good enough to go to the top universities. Even so, Cambridge colleges ran their own Entrance and Scholarship exams. By the time you had done that little lot, you were well examined.

      As for essay writing ability, lots of students dump three or four essays on a subject from the Internet, do a cut and paste, some rephrasing and present it as their own work. They are demonstrating editing ability.

      • Bazman
        Posted August 26, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

        You need to learn the Bazman system of passing exams in subjects you know nothing about and have no aptitude or in interest in. Before the age of the internet I might add.

        • Lindsay McDougall
          Posted August 27, 2012 at 2:34 am | Permalink

          You might care to try your hand at one of the Oxford colleges’s entrance exams. In the middle of the front page, with lots of white space above, below and alongside, appeared the single word “Hate”.

          Students had three hours to write on that subject.

          • Bazman
            Posted August 27, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

            Did anyone get in by just not writing anything or crossing out the ‘H’? Probably not.

          • Bazman
            Posted August 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            Maybe the word ‘money’ should have been used? Never happen though would it Lindsay? Wonder why.

  49. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    My younger daughter has just received her English and Maths GCSE results. At English, she is very good, coasted disgracefully and got a C.

    At maths, she has little aptitude. After 3 months of 1 to 1 personal tutoring by me, often battering my head against a brick wall, she got – you’ve guessed it – another C.

    Well done both of us. Now you can toughen up the exams.

  50. Electro-Kevin
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    The high levels of illiteracy at the lower end is alarming. 22% of school leavers I read.

    I should imagine many of those pupils are able enough but are suffering from disruption and destraction during lesson times.

    It must be a dreadful job trying to teach a class which won’t (can’t) pay attention.

    • Electro-Kevin
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      “O levels required a lot of learning by rote, where the information is now easily available to anyone who wants to look it up.”

      That is a highly important ability in my view. One cannot conceptualise without the basic facts in one’s head.

      • Electro-Kevin
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        Social mobility has got markedly worse in recent decades. Is this a coincidence ?

  51. Glen Thomas
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    The GCSE pass rate A*-C is exactly the same as way back in 2010, and still a whopping 2% higher than in 2009 (and more than 10% higher than 10 years ago). The English rate is still 1% higher than in 2009, following precipitous climbs in recent years. Seems a reasonable correction to me.

  52. Dennis
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    A Canadian teacher on Newsnight last week said that Canada has solved the examinations ‘problem’ – they don’t have them.

    Students are assessed by the teachers. This assessment over many years should be more accurate than a few hours in an examination when extraneous conditions might affect a student’s performance. As many teachers give the assessment any bias should be flattened out.

    This could be good here as pupils might pay more attention to their teachers.

  53. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m getting confused. Who is the Secretary of State for Education? Is it Michael Gove or the egalitarian rabble that constitute the educational establishment. I think it’s Michael Gove and I think that he is perfectly entitled to make GCSEs and A levels more difficult so that a top grade actually means something. A levels used to be our gold standard and now we are told that we have to use the International Baccalaureat. It’s the same group of EU leaning lefties who have wrecked our own system who want to use a foreign exam.

    Anyway, one thing has been clarified. We now know what the next wave of civil service redundancies should be. Civil servants who are publicly disloyal to their Minister cannot expect to survive.

  54. John Eustace
    Posted August 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    It is particularly crass and indefensible to change the standards in the middle of the year.

    A comparison of old O level papers with GCSE papers of today is instructive. I think the modern English papers encourage more critical thinking and reward the ability to form and express opinions. The modern Maths papers, however, are an order of magnitude easier than the O levels – I can quickly answer nearly all of the questions in my head without need to recourse to pen and paper or calculator.

  55. Lewis John
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    It is corporate need that determines the National Curriculum, and no longer our politicians, regardless of your whereabouts in the world. That’s what we need to understand. The aim is to teach subjects only relevant to their needs. Human subjects will be dropped and it will result in wide-scale “numbing – down” of the people, in general. Unless, we do something about it…

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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