Exams: What are you telling your children given the recent scandal?

I was struck by this opinion post on The Telegraph this evening. The author, Martin Stephen, was High Master of St Pauls (School) from 2004 to 2011 and knows a thing or two about education.

His main contention is that the scandal which alleges that teachers have been able to — in effect — buy the contents of upcoming exams in order to better their students’ results. Martin then goes on to point out that this is hardly reassuring for today’s youngsters. Not at all.

Back in my day — I’m 34, so my ‘day’ was around 1995-ish — I studied hard for my GCSE exams. If memory serves me right, I was the second year that went through the new fangled GCSEs as apposed to what was known as ‘O Levels’. Even then, I remember reading about exams getting easier. Since then it’s been a perennial favourite of the media every exam season — the usual suspects trot out declaring that things are getting far too easy. Then, to make matters worse, some of the donkey questions are then included.

I remember experiencing utter blind panic during my GCSE Mathematics exam. You’re constantly reminded that if you start the wrong exam paper, tough. You can’t go back. You can’t change half-way through the exam and so on. So I checked-and-re-checked my paper before I began. I was absolutely horrified to find a question at the end of the paper that read like this:

“Jack is wondering how much paint he will need in order to cover the bottom of his swimming pool. The pool is 6m long and 2m wide. What is the total area in metres Jack will paint?”

Something like that.

I immediately turned to the front of the exam paper to check I was working on the right one. How could a stupid question like this get into the paper?

I wasted 10 flipping minutes on that one, sweating — I do mean full-on-palm-sweating style panic.

6 times 2.
2 times 6.

Surely it’s not that simple?

I remember remarking that, yes, I suppose it is important that you do actually confirm that anyone doing a mathematics GCSE should be able to calculate ‘area’ correctly — but, seriously — does the task need to be that simple? Surely finding the area should have been included in a larger more complicated task. Surely finding the area is a given — if you got through X years of decent education, this should be, well, assumed.

I ended up actually drawing out a 6×2 grid and counting the flipping squares on the back of a spare piece of paper to check I wasn’t missing something, I was that worried about misinterpretation.

I’m happy to say that things worked out. One of the rather stimulating geeky things about a mathematics exam is that you can more or less work out your score there-and-then. For instance, if you’re one of the lucky chaps who happens to know that length by width equals area, you’re good. Job done. That’s a win. And if you can go through your paper evaluating each answer in this way, you can work out your rough score.

So I was proud of my results. In total I think I got 6x As and 5x Bs.

I was especially proud of my two A grades for English Language and English Literature. Genius. The virtues of a Scottish (i.e. proper) education, I remember telling myself. When I moved from Scotland to England at age 9 I was astonished that my peers couldn’t write properly. We was. You is. I are going this way. That sort of thing.

I could spell, too. The rest of the class had been brought up with the it will come philosophy. In Scotland, you got a big red pen through the misspellings. There were serious spelling tests every week.

And when it came to maths, I remember people staring at me in awe for the first few weeks when I was able to — magically, as far as my peers were concerned — produce multiplication answers in my head. I was ace at 6 times table. I had everything below that automatically locked and loaded. I was nifty with most of the 7 and 8 times tables. And I just had to think for a few moments about 9, 10, 11 and 12. My peers all used calculators.

So where did this leave me? Well I was hugely unimpressed when one peer at GCSE level got an A*. They were introduced in my GCSE year: One better than A. The student couldn’t spell to save her life. I mean, seriously. She couldn’t spell the word Catholic. Or Protestant. The teacher used to keep the words on the board during history lessons so this student would stop asking how to spell it. Her written prose looked and read like that of a 7 year old. She was not deficient in any way. She was highly skilled and intelligent to speak with. Just not when it came to writing.

How did she get an A*?

Because the examiners were told to avoid punishing students for actually getting things wrong. If you knew what the student meant, that was fine. Petty things like spolling, gramma and punkty-ashin were deemed petty. So no wonder my peer got upgraded.

Me? As far as the examiners were concerned, I delivered a pedestrian performance. I did give some thought to sticking in a catalogue of stupid grammatical errors when it came to my A Level English exam.

So I was flipping annoyed with my ‘A’.

I didn’t really want to be measured against that scale. If I look back and carefully parse my experiences and reactions, I think I was rather embarrassed at the A grade in both English subjects. Because this was telling prospective employers that I was almost good. Not quite brilliant. Not quite capable.

You might argue that the introduction of A* was the beginning of the end in terms of standards. Grade inflation and so on.

Have exams been getting easier?

Well, I suppose you have to look at school league tables. Those were established to help give parents and idea what to expect in terms of a service level. If 70% of children leave a school with grades A-C in English, that’s probably good, right? But a school where 95% leave with an A-C grade in English, that’s even better, right? So goes the logic with league tables.

So Head Teachers and local authorities naturally need to make sure their statistics look good.

So there’s pressure on teachers to deliver a service level measured by exam performance.

And those teachers naturally will naturally seek to deliver as many students into the top mark brackets as is possible.

And an exam board — a commercial entity, wanting to flog exam ‘services’ to schools — has a serious interest in keeping the attention of teachers.

You might say that the whole system is self-fulfilling. It’s in everyone’s interests to see grades go up. Questions need to get easier to keep everyone happy. Or, as the Telegraph has pointed out, teachers need to get access to rather accurate ‘pointers’ to help them coach their students to the necessary service level.

So if, almost 20 years ago, I was feeling a bit shortchanged with my A grades, goodness knows how students are feeling nowadays. I remember getting rather annoyed by the constant media buzz about ‘exams getting easier’ back then because I’d put a ton of work into my results. A serious amount of effort! The last thing I wanted was this effort degraded.

When it comes to quality, then, what is the way forward?

If we assume for a moment that the practice of allowing teachers to pay to attend exam briefing days where they’re more or less hinted in the precise direction of exam content, what does this mean for the current generation of students? Or the students entering high school education next year?

GCSEs are still very much an important reckoner in society. Although I do wonder how employers feel about them nowadays.

How valuable are they, really?

And what’s the solution? Given our son is 18 months old right now, it’s quite far from my immediate concerns but soon I’m going to have to give it all some thought.

I’ve heard of some friends with older children who’ve either exclusively focused on International Baccalaureate and dumped GCSEs entirely or done a mix of GCSEs, AS Level and IB — dumping A Levels too. Who knows?

I’d very much appreciate the perspective of parents reading, especially those with children facing (or about to face) this exam issue. Are you concerned by today’s revelations? And from a quality perspective, what’s your view? Keep chugging away with GCSEs and A Levels? Has anything really changed?