I do wonder whether the media in any other country are as obsessed with students’ school examination results as they are in Britain.
Plenty of other things actually do occur in August: this year, horrendous internal strife in Egypt and Syria, significant issues about national security, the publication of restricted information, and citizens revolting against fracking.
However, the discussion of A level and GCSE results and whether standards were rising or falling and whether results were fair held sway for a considerable period.
As I write, we know that the percentages of candidates receiving the highest grades at both A level and GCSE are down – we know that some examinations had deliberately been made more rigorous and challenging, but as yet there is no story similar to last year’s when so many students received unexpected D grades in English and mathematics because the grade boundaries had been changed mid-year.
However, one of the main stories which has been running all summer is about the vast volume of multiple entries by the same candidates for mathematics and English at GCSE and IGCSE and for different GCSE Boards, and the enormous numbers of early entries and re-sits which occur in these same subjects.
At last, the media seem to have noticed the philosophy which some schools have adopted of entering pupils for modules in years 9 and 10 and re-entering them until they have achieved C grades – the magic borderline.
If brighter students achieve the C grade early, then the fact that they might have gained an A* with the benefit of more maturity and educational experience if they had taken the examination in the summer of year 11 is often ignored and they are made to accept the C and move on to yet more GCSEs in different subjects.
Apparently, 36 per cent of all GCSE mathematics candidates this summer had taken the examination at least twice this year, and one had managed eight different entries (according to the media); possible, I suppose, as there are three sittings for some Boards and many schools do enter several different Boards simultaneously, hoping to strike the lucky C somewhere.
After last year’s English Language GCSE fiasco, the Cambridge International Examinations’ IGCSE English First Language saw a rise in entries from 18,000 in 2012 to 63,000 this year. However, the percentages achieving A* or A grades declined dramatically; the IGCSE is not an easier examination.
Why is all this happening? It is undoubtedly a direct result of the pressure from government and its target-setting with the clear focus on proportions obtaining C grades in key subjects – the future of a school may very well depend on this.
Ministers and education officials frequently talk about putting students first and focusing on their educational needs, but the current target-driven culture and their obsession with league tables directly militates against this.
Why will this not be recognised by those in power? How many times does this issue have to be raised, even by the chairman of the Education Select Committee, before someone listens and takes action? It is a huge waste of schools’ resources in terms of examination fees to undertake all these multiple entries and re-sits.
Moreover, sitting GCSEs in the manner of “driving tests” does nothing to kindle a real passion and excitement for a subject in a student. We, in the independent sector, are fortunate to have a little more freedom in this respect.
Please can we shift the focus for the whole education sector away from examinations and on to the real pleasures of learning, investigating, discovering and rising to challenges which will not necessarily lead to a certificate? More creativity, critical and independent thinking and even fun in the classroom might then flourish!
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.