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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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Making the grade

It’s the grouse season, in case you didn’t know. The time of year when businesses and politicians complain about falling standards in schools. There are claims that testing pupils’ skills and knowledge is too weak, that pass grades are too low, that the exams are too easy and the results are meaningless.

This year, criticism of GCSEs and the way they have been marked has fuelled the plans of Education Secretary Michael Gove and Prime Minister David Cameron to replace the exams.

The recent row over grade adjustments in this year’s English GCSEs prompted Mr Gove to repeat his determination to reform the exams as soon as possible.

He has already started moves to reform them to prevent repeated re-takes of parts of the qualifications. Pupils will begin these new courses this autumn and sit their exams in 2014.

Mr Gove says he intends to return to what he describes as a more rigorous O-level-style qualification, promising more details later in the autumn.

Under his plans, the majority of pupils would sit a single examination rather than being split into those taking lower valued CSEs and more academic O-levels.

“What we need to do is have an examination which has all the rigour of the old O-level but it’s sat by the majority of students,” he added.

Not so much a return to O-levels as the introduction of ‘Gove-levels’.

Prime Minister David Cameron has defended the need for tougher exams, declaring there will be “no more soft exams and soft discipline”.

He added: “When the grades went down, a predictable cry went up: that we were hurting the prospects of these children.

“What hurts them is dumbing down their education so that their potential is never reached and no one wants to employ them. ‘All must have prizes’ is not just patronising, it is cruel – and with us it is over”.

The world of business has lost confidence in the education system, according to Gen II Engineering chief executive Mike Smith.

Gen II provides apprentice training and commercial engineering courses.

It trained 240 apprentices for businesses across Cumbria last year. This year that figure is expected to rise to 250, with 140 youngsters finding work in the developing hi-tech nuclear and engineering firms in the west of the county.

Based at the Lillyhall Business Centre, Workington, Mr Smith is chief executive and regularly hears employers and businesses complain about the quality of recruits taken straight from school.

“Business has steadily lost confidence in the ability of the education system to deliver people who are ready for the world of work,” he says. “Company bosses aren’t bothered about whether their recruits sit GSCEs or some other exam, they just want the youngsters to have a greater grasp of maths and English and a better attitude towards work.

“GCSEs are okay, but you are not going to get business railing about the tightening up of standards.

“We have not heard anyone say GCSEs are rubbish, I’ve not heard an employer say they want a return to the ‘good old days’ ofO-levels.

“They say youngsters are not delivered with the skills needed for the workplace and are not good enough in English and maths, especially maths. But they are not being taught life skills as well, like the ability to work in teams, to fault-find, make presentations, turn up on time and be willing to work.”

Their attitude is an echo of the old school report verdict: ‘could do better’.

Carlisle College principal Moira Tattersall agrees. She backs the exams, though she believes a review of their value and the way they are taught could be worthwhile.

She cautions, however, against any major changes: “I don’t think GCSEs have ‘dumbed down’ learning. There is enough disquiet to examine how we deliver the GCSEs and to ask are they fit for purpose.

“It has to be fit for purpose, whatever the exam system.

“It is not an O-level, it is not less, but different.

“In the old days there was a two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs and employers did not know the difference between the two.

“In my experience, working with a whole host of employers, the most important thing is the intrinsic employability skills of young people, which is not necessarily measured by a GCSE or O-level.”

“I remember the agonies of the GCSE years for my kids and their friends and I would really hate it if any change diminishes the achievements they made, that is what I would despair at.”

Alison Chapman is director of school engagement at the University of Cumbria and oversees the school-based training for trainee teachers.

Like Mrs Tattersall, she backs the GCSE’s, but agrees that a review of them could be worthwhile.

“If you look at the last 20 years, there have been a lot of successes of people in business and commerce, but as with everything, it is important to review things and assess structures.”

Mrs Chapman is certain the current system is better than the old two-tier O-level and CSE method and says criticisms of weak testing have been addressed as the exams have evolved since they were introduced in 1986.

“They were introduced so pupils could achieve at whatever level and to ensure that results weren’t just based on an end-of-term exam,” she explains.

“It has tightened up over the years. Recently there has been more of a move to a linear approach, with more weight being given to work at the end of the course and the final exam.”

Mrs Tattersall cautions against employers judging youngsters on their qualifications alone.

“In some cases, GSCEs are used as a proxy for some kind of base ability across subjects or whether that person meets the required threshold for that industry.

“I could not say that is entirely reliable. Aptitude tests and interview, that is where the qualities of the individual can shine through, not just measuring them by their GCSEs.”

Mrs Chapman says part of the evolution of the exam system has involved the introduction of A* grades to signify the top-achievers.

“You have to get above 92 per cent to get that grade and the numbers achieving it are down this year, showing just how difficult it is.

“We don’t want to get left behind as a nation. Mr Gove is right to want high standards and the best for the UK with strong educational foundations.”

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