The annual kefuffle about GCSE grades and standards has got a bit more exciting this year, with several schools suing the exam boards for raising standards. It seems that several thousand candidates who might have expected to get a Grade C - indicating virtual illiteracy - have now ended up with a Grade D - indicating total illiteracy instead.
I knew a family with a child who was very slow to learn to read or write. She was always far behind the average for her age. Books did not interest her and SATS were always a problem. She failed the eleven-plus (they were living in one of the few areas where such things still existed in the 1990s) and went to a secondary modern where she entered for six GCSEs. There were no exams, just course-work, which could be downloaded from the internet and the results were marked by their own class teachers, who were allowed to see the first draft and correct it.
Not surprisingly, nobody in her class failed in any subject. To my surprise, the parents encouraged her to stay on into sixth form. She failed AS levels, which included an exams after one year, but then was allowed to sit them all again. After three years, by dint of rote learning and coursework instead of exams, she emerged with something they called A-levels. There were many jobs and training courses she could have applied for at that point. Yet still the parents did not want her to retire from academia. She applied for university, and the universities ignored her poor grades on the grounds that her year was the first to take this curriculum, and were the "guinea-pigs". So she did a degree in media studies, and very soon afterwards, without ever having read a book in her life became... a teacher...of English.
For years the exam system has been in free fall and levels of literacy among school pupils have been plummeting way down out of sight. It's not just that standards are abysmally low, but cheating is also absolutely rife. If have just looked on a some local websites here in Oxford and there are many advertisements like the following:-
"Essay Assistant. We can write your essays for you on any topic. Ring Hassan on 07717XXXXXX".
Many more specimens, for submission as "course-work", can be downloaded from the internet and they are even sold on E-bay. Qualifications obtained in such a way are worth just about as much as an old sweet wrapper. Of course one of the reasons why course-work has taken the place of exams is that it is getting harder and harder to find qualified people to act as examiners - and no wonder, since the job is pressurized, complicated, poorly paid, and not supported by proper training. In the old days, they used teachers who were already teaching the subject in question. Nowadays teachers are far too disaffected and weighed down with paperwork to take on extra marking. When I was an examiner the main thing impressed on all of us was not to fail anyone. If schools find that their pupils are failing, they will simply switch them to another exam board and you go out of business. So it is literally a race to the bottom.
Most children I meet can read, but writing is an almost lost skill. They have no idea of grammar, they can't spell, they can't punctuate and many of them don't even know how to hold a pen or pencil. They grasp it in a simian fashion or knot their fingers around it in a way that ensures the least efficiency. When required to do homework, many of them write a couple of paragraphs and call it an essay. Anyone who knows where to start writing on a page, which direction to go in and how to use capital letters could until recently be fairly confident of getting a C grade in GCSE English.
It is high time to make some effort to restore standards no matter how painful the process. But will the exam boards be intimidated by litigation? Wee will have to weight and sea.
Lenten Meditations: Tuesday 28 March
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