English education and the great grade inflation fraud

English education has suffered greatly from its politicisation in the liberal internationalist interest, but even more fundamental damage was done by progressive teaching methods which failed to provide many children with an adequate grasp the three ‘Rs’ (and left a depressing number either completely  illiterate or what is coyly called “functionally illiterate”, while  most are unable to do simple arithmetic and lack any sense of number or proportion,  so that they have no idea whether the sums they poked into their calculators produced answers which were correct.

The most obvious consequence of the gradual decline in educational standards  was an erosion in exam quality.  At first it was small things. Practical exams for science O Levels were dropped. Then came multiple choice questions. The curricula in all subjects  shrank.  New,  less academic subjects such as media studies found their  way into the exam system and elbowed the academic aside. Eventually  came the ultimate corruption of the exam system with the introduction of continuous assessment.  With  the fall in school standards, the  universities and polytechnics inevitably had to drop their standards. 

The  corruption of exam standards was further driven by a desire to expand the numbers of children passing school exams and the numbers going on to Higher Education.  To this end O Levels and the old CSE exams for less able pupils were abolished in the 1980s  and replaced with the General Certificate of Education (GCSE). Around the same time a decision was made to vastly increase the numbers of students in Higher Education. To make this policy more attractive to would-be students, the polytechnics were renamed universities in 1992, with the consequence that more than 100 institutions with that title were suddenly competing for students, with as we shall see later, evil effects.

The consequence of having a single exam (GCSE) for all 16 year olds was predictable: to prevent embarrassing numbers of failures, the standard of the new exam had to be reduced below that of the already much less demanding O Levels of the 1980s (even so, in 2005 around 30 per cent of children fail to gain five GCSEs at C grade or higher.) The upshot was that the GCSE candidates either left school at 16  lacking even  the rudiments of education needed to fill run-of-the-mill jobs – many are functionally illiterate and even more lack basic numeracy –   or entered A Level courses woefully under-prepared, especially in subjects such as maths.  A Levels and degree courses were again, of necessity, reduced in standard to adapt to pupils and students who were substantially under-prepared compared with those arriving under the pre-GCSE examination regime.

At the same time as standards were eroding, the Tories introduced in the 1980s the madness of league tables and targets.  The consequence of these – not just in education but generally – is to distract from the actual purpose of what an organisation is supposed to do and to promote dishonesty in the pursuit of attaining the targets and showing well in league tables. 

The league tables provoked even more tampering with the academic standards of school exams as examination boards competed with one another to produce the “best” results, that is, ever higher pass rates and grades and schools chose the examination board most likely to give them ostensible examination success.

The  response of both politicians and educationalists  to the inexorable rise in GCSE and A Level results since GCSE was introduced has been to hail them as evidence that educational standards are continually rising. Such claims have the same relationship to reality as Soviet figures for the turnip harvest or tractor production.  All that has happened is that both the difficulty of exams and the severity of marking has been reduced.  In 2004 an A Grade in GCSE Maths  from Edexcel, one of the largest exam boards, could be gained with 45 per cent (Daily Telegraph 18 9 2004), while a “B” grade at one Board in 2004 (OCR)  could be a obtained with a mere 17 per cent (Sunday Telegraph 16 1 2005).  (When challenged about lowered grade marks, those setting the exams claim that the questions are becoming  more difficult.)  Course work, which counts towards the overall exam mark,  is reported as being either routinely plagiarised from the Web or showing other evidence of being  other than the pupil’s unaided work. 

In addition to the lowering of exam marks and the fraud of continuous assessment, school exams have begun to shift from final tests  to  modular exams which are taken throughout the course. Hence, pupils on such courses never take an exam which tests them on their entire course. 

Of course, all this change to school exams, combined with the introduction of the national curriculum tests,  creates a great deal of extra work for teachers and distracts them from the actual task of teaching – pupils are tested at 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18.  It has also spawned a truly monstrous examination bureaucracy,  which according to a recent report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (a state body) costs £610 million per year (Daily Telegraph 14 2 2005) and has left the country desperately scrabbling around for  examiners.

The  frequent complaints of university teachers about the inadequacy of the students coming to them  and the even more  vociferous  complaints of employers about applicants who lack competence in even the three “Rs” are pretty substantial straws in the wind suggesting a general educational failure. My own direct experience of youngsters all too often bears out such complaints –  I find especially depressing recent graduates with good degrees from top universities who are  bizarrely ignorant of their degree subjects and poorly equipped to research or analyse.

The universities also joined in the grade inflation caucus race.  I went to University in the late sixties. In those days – when less than 10% of UK school-leavers went to university – Oxford and Cambridge awarded around 40%  of undergraduates the top two degree classifications . The newer universities were much stingier, many awarding only  4-5% of firsts and 30% of upper seconds.  They did this to establish their credibility.  Now it is common for universities to award  firsts to more than 15% of undergraduates and firsts and  upper seconds to two thirds of those who graduate.  A recent (I Jan 2011) Sunday  Telegraph  investigation discovered “The universities awarding the highest proportion of firsts or 2:1s last year were Exeter, where 82 per cent of graduates received the top degrees compared with just 29 per cent in 1970, and St Andrews – Scotland’s oldest university, where Prince William met fiancée Kate Middleton – where the figure was also 82 per cent compared with just 25 per cent in 1970.

“Imperial College London and Warwick both granted 80 per cent firsts or 2:1s last year, compared with 49 per cent and 39 per cent respectively in 1970.  At Bath University the figure was 76 per cent last year compared with just 35 per cent in 1970. “http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/8235115/Dumbing-down-of-university-grades-revealed.html

There was some grade inflation before the late eighties but it was small compared with what has happened since. Until, the late eighties universities received their funding in the form of a block grant from a government body called the Universities Grants Committee ((UGC) This meant there was no temptation to inflate degree awards because the money did not follow the individual student. The UGC was scrapped in 1989 and the money attached to each individual student. This changed the relationship between  the university and student from being one where the student was seen as just that to one where the student became primarily a bringer of money. This relationship changed again with  first the abolition of grants and then the introduction of fees which made placed the student in the position of customer.

Anecdotes are always tricky as evidence,  so let us consider an objective fact which explains why widespread educational incompetence is inevitable in the circumstances which have been created.  IQ  is normally distributed within a population, that is it forms a Bell Curve with most people clustering in the middle of the curve and a few people at the extremes of the curve. Such a distribution means that the proportion of the population with IQs substantially above the average is quite small – approximately 25 per cent of the UK population have IQs of 110 or more.  Now, it is true that IQ as a measure of academic success is not infallible, not least because motivation is necessary as well as intellect.  But what is true is that a decent IQ is necessary for  academic success. Put another way, someone with an IQ of 150 may or may not take a First in maths: someone with an IQ of 90 never will.

The way IQ is distributed means that the ideal of an exam suited to everyone (GCSE) is a literal nonsense, because that which would test the brightest would be beyond the large majority and even that which the majority could cope with would be beyond those in the lower part of the ability range. The grades awarded for GCSE bear this out.  The  large numbers of those getting the top marks mean that the exam is too easy for the brightest, while the 30 per cent or so of school-leavers who cannot attain 5 passes at C grade or better tell you it is too difficult for the lower part of the academic ability continuum. 

 A similar problem of fitting exams to a very wide ability range has affected universities. Tony Blair set a target of 50 per cent of either school-leavers or people under the age of 28 (the target seems to move) to be in Higher Education – at the beginning of  2005 the percentage is over 40 per cent. Blair’s target meant that many of those at university will have mediocre IQs. 

Let us  assume for the sake of simplicity  that 50 per cent of school-leavers is the target rather than 50 per cent of those under 28. There are only around 25 per cent of people with IQs of 110 or higher in any age group. If every one of those 25 per cent went to university (50 per cent of those scheduled to go to university if the Blair target is met) it would still leave the other half of those going to university  to be found from those with IQs of less than 109. Hence, with 50 per cent of school-leavers at university,  at least half the  people taking degrees would have, as a matter of necessity,  moderate IQs.  In fact, the position is worse than that,  because significant numbers of those with IQs substantially above average will not go  to university.  That means even more than 50 per cent of students would have moderate IQs. Trying to set degree courses suitable for people with,  say,  IQs  ranging  from 90-160 cannot be a  practical proposition.

The coalition government has not committed themselves to Blair’s 50% target but neither have they said it will not the reached or even exceeded, the Government line being anyone who wants to go to universitty should go.

The upshot of all this is that the better  universities can no longer trust an A at A Level to be a true reflection of excellence because so many people are awarded As and a new A* grade has been introduced in the hope that it will distinguish outstanding candidates.  However, this is unlikely to be a long-term solution as it is a sound bet that A* will be awarded in ever greater numbers.

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6 Responses to English education and the great grade inflation fraud

  1. efgd says:

    What an interesting and well informed blog – thanks for the information.

    We can see the problem, what should a competent government do now?

    I do not know statistics relating to the number of pupils leaving school with the inability to read, write and be numerically proficient at a basic level. I do know that I have dealt with a number of young people who came into my employment who either could not read or write at all, or could not understand the difference between capital letters and small letters, and all three were totally inept at basic numeracy. They were lucky, in all instances they were helped with those issues, but only after they were ‘caught’ out so to speak and were questioned about their ability to do their job when certain things seemed to be, shall we say, slightly askew. They could do their job because they were taught what to do and how to do it, and to do that the best they could they then devised ways to overcome their lack of schooling achievement, this, to me, shows they were extremely resourceful and inventive, not dim, stupid or lazy. How on earth did they get through the education system, one had even passed their GCSEs!

    What a rum do when the education system fails to provide for the means of all young people to read, write and be numerically proficient throughout their schooling. This has a knock on effect in adulthood as unless they seek help they will be illiterate all their life. So sad.

    So back to the beginning, what should the Government, Academy’s and the Free Schools do now? As a suggestion I would suggest the written exam be prioritised over computer based essay modular exams to written exams. Both ways of examination are applicable and I feel this would lend itself to ensuring that the pupil or student is making progress and that in the end they could be seen to be competent in their subject matter.

    I was hoping that Academy’s and Free Schools would institute the priority of reading, writing and numeracy. Though they have good exam records, under the system as it stands now, that could mean nothing as the young people I mentioned, except for the one who could not read or write, all ‘passed’ school exams.

    Thank you once again for an interesting and informative blog.

    • Concentrate on the 3 Rs until they are mastered; end continuous assessment; have only synoptic (end of course exams); return to norm marking in exams; end courses such as general science and general studies and teach history and geography properly again.

  2. efgd says:

    I agree that it is a prerequisite that the 3Rs should be mastered but having accessed information on the subjects relation to general science: http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0772964.htmland
    general studies: http://store.aqa.org.uk/qual/gce/pdf/AQA-2760-W-TRB-SSPGENA2.PDF

    I think the ability to use deductive and retrospective capabilities is also of paramount importance for the pupil/student; in what other way other than through ‘general studies’ could that be achieved? It is perhaps lack of these attributes as well as failure to have grasped the ability to read, write and be competent in general mathematics, that has led pupil/students to be unable to take on employment they aspire to but in fact could do if their education had not failed them. The example I gave before reiterates that.

    Can you give an example of what constitutes a way to “teach history and geography properly”? I excelled at history at school, failed dismally at geography though – we are talking some decades ago now 🙂 – both ‘results’ could also be attributed to the personality of the teacher. With the former being most definitely ‘old school’ and the latter being more of a ‘contemporary’ nature.


  3. Pingback: Education, Education, Education? | Thinking

  4. History – Replace themes with chronological understanding and empathy (“Imagine you’re a medieaval peasant”) with facts.

    Geography – replace empathy with facts, viz: out goes “imagine you’re a Mexican peasant” and in comes “what are the main industries of Mexico?”

    As for teaching people to think for themselves, that is part of any teacher’s job. It might be worth including philosophy in the school curriculum.

    • efgd says:

      From what I accessed at the website below in history pupils and students do learn both the chronological order and the conceptual understanding.

      In geography there is the process whereby main industries in countries are assessed. http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/key-stages-1-and-2/subjects/geography/keystage2/index.aspx
      Though that could be incorporated in socio-economic studies, http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Socioeconomic
      However this seems to be covered through the curriculum in ‘linking mathematics with other subjects’.

      Most definitely I agree that philosophy should be taught as a main subject, perhaps incorporated within the Religious Education syllabus: http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/key-stages-3-and-4/subjects/key-stage-3/religious-education/programme-of-study/index.aspx?tab=4

      Though it has been too long to think about since I left school, went into higher education and gained a honours degree in Social Policy, from what the younger members of the family tell me – those at school etc. – there seems to be a dumbing down by incorporating a ‘live and let live, and award those who do not do try, for whatever reason, as well as those who are trying to achieve’; I am not saying those who cannot achieve but those who disrupt the class and ‘muck about’, are rewarded the same, or in some cases better, than those who knuckle down, and want to achieve. This is not abstract here this is from ‘the horses mouth’ as they say.

      Competition and success seems to be diverted to ‘we are all in this together’. Only in team concepts is that applicable. I wanted to do better than another pupil, I wanted to be noted, a winner if you like. There is the same aspiration amongst the young now days. For everyone to be awarded a ‘reward’ of the same caliber is wrong and simply diverts the more willing and able to either fall by the wayside or become as disruptive and ignorant as those who are being giving the all clear to behave in such a manner.

      Maybe it is not so much the curriculum that has to change as the sheer banality of the teaching and teachers. Not all teachers of course are banal and inept, but like social workers who have all the academic qualifications needed to write out the papers and understand the concepts, life experience should be a prerequisite. If that seems unfair to young teachers then so be it, life is not fair nor is it an equal playing field. We can try to iron out the ‘crinks’ but if we do not accept that making excuses for disruptive and neanderthal behaviour we are doomed to have a caricature of the Dickenson – Victorian society; I said a caricature not an emulation of.

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