By 2018 the ‘English Baccalaureate’ – a pastiche certificate including English, Maths, History/Geography and a language – is intended to replace GCSEs as England’s standard 16-plus measure of academic attainment. Michael Gove announced the move in order to counter the “grade inflation and dumbing down” engendered by GCSEs. Gove’s exam would not only be harder, but retakes and modules would be culled, and – significantly – results would be given not as letter grades A*, A, B, C which offer results in bulks of 10 per cent, but in numeric grades or percentages. It is foreseen that under the new system only 10 per cent of pupils will achieve the top grade.
Its main advantage is self-evident: the English Baccalaureate will allow for greater differentiation of outcome. And insofar as recent exam reform goes, Michael Gove is not alone in his frustration with the apparently perpetual increase of students attaining top grades; it was this frustration, after all, that led to the introduction of the A* grade at A-Level, and its subsequent inclusion in many Russell Group university offers.
Gove’s diagnosis and cure demand examination. The “grade inflation” and “dumbing down” that he criticises must first be distinguished. The meaning of ‘dumbing down’ is obvious – though claimants might do well to remember that in the 1960s the standard Oxbridge offer was EE; if exams are easier now, the standard has been raised. ‘Inflation’, to the OED, is “great or undue expansion or enlargement”, an “increase beyond proper limits”. Gove’s comment, relating to the fact that a third of GCSE entrants were awarded A/A* grades in 2011, can be seen as him seeing GCSE results as having exceeded “proper limits”.
So where exactly are these ‘proper limits’ located – and can the exam itself be isolated as the proper cause of their violation? Looking at statistics from the Department of Education, in 1962 (pre-GCSEs) the percentage of school-leavers with 5+ ‘passes’ (equivalent to A*-C) was around 16 per cent for boys and 15 per cent for girls; in 2006 it was around 64 per cent for girls and 54 per cent for boys. The incline of the graph is indeed steeper after 1986, the first year of GCSE examinations; this much is undeniable. It is interesting to note, however, that after 1986, the incline the thin red line showing the attainment for girls is becomes considerably steeper than the little blue one – despite the fact that in 1986 they were nearly touching. I would like to suggest that this second trend might show that women in England have become better educated, more numerate and more literate in the last 25 years, and suggest furthermore than this increase is connected to the fact that, although in 1980 37 per cent of degrees were awarded to women, that figure is around 50 per cent now. The number of state school acceptances at Oxford was 43 per cent in 1970; it is nearly 59 per cent now.
That GCSEs boosted attainment is therefore in evidence – however, if there were not some measure showing that our adolescents were emerging ever better educated, we would – rightly – consider ourselves aggrieved. ‘Proper limits’, then, are not only defined by how many touch them, but also by who does so.
Consider now the case of the introduction of the A* grade at A-level – a similar manifestation of a growing preoccupation with the differentiation of outcome, introduced after yet another year where “record numbers of sixth-formers gained top grades” (Telegraph). As it stands in 2011 around 12 per cent of all given grades were A*s. The Independent sector was responsible for 30 per cent, grammar schools for 13 per cent, comprehensives for 26 per cent. Or, as a ratio of A*s per percentage of entries: 2.3, 1.4, 0.7. Now this, to adapt Mr Gove’s phrase, is grade inflation: the expansion of results beyond the “proper” – proportionate – limits.
Here is an example of how the A* grade has been used by universities. In 2012, tutors at Churchill College, Cambridge, examine the details of an applicant with a strong interview performance and a weak academic record from a poorly-performing school. They decide “to make an offer but to set the hurdle high because of the doubts”. The candidate is offered A*A*A, while the standard Cambridge offer is A*AA. In 2009 this obstacle could not have been included in the offer, because that level of differentiation of outcome was not available.
Allow me one last example: in 2011 the Department of Education announced that disadvantaged children (ie those on free school meals or in care) are half as likely to achieve five A*-C grades at GCSE. If some grades are inflated, others are deflated.
This is an old argument, but one in the light of which Gove’s new examination must be seen: opportunity affects outcome; outcome reflects opportunity. Who will the lauded 10% achieving the ‘top grade’ be? By differentiating at a level of achievement whose accessibility is so unequal – for socio-economic reasons as well as ability – Gove’s reform fails to acknowledge or address the problem that aptitude and intelligence, as they appear measured in outcome, have been tempered by circumstance. In other words, where there is not exclusivity of attainment, there must be faulty attainment; cue “grade inflation and dumbing down”. The capacity to differentiate outcome more closely – what the English Baccalaureate offers – not only disqualifies the progress (and failure) of certain groups in the last 25 years, but will give quantitative grounds for qualitative differences and declare them meritocratic; measuring outcome more closely will reveal the traces of opportunity only to obscure and demote their relevance.