A personal account by Barnie Choudhury
Like hundreds of thousands of parents, today was an anxious time for my wife and me. Only a couple of months ago our daughter sat her GCSEs. Today was D-day. Would she, wouldn’t she pass her GCSEs? You see for the past twenty years GCSEs have been slammed as a “dumbed-down” version of O levels. This morning’s headlines were told a different story. Apparently for the first time since GCSEs were introduced the number of A*-Cs had fallen. Apparently marking had got tougher and exam boards had to justify their high marks. We were terrified if truth be told. What if…? It didn’t bear thinking about.
I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years. I’ve reported on results day at some point in my career. I have to say that I’m fed up with those who say standards have slipped and exams “dumbed-down”. I say this because, as well as running my own company, I’m a Principal Lecturer at the University of Lincoln and External Examiner at a couple of universities. I set and mark coursework and oversee standards in Higher Education.
And as a parent, I was fed up with politicians saying and the press reporting that today’s children have it easier that we did. So I put it to the test. I enrolled at Leicester College for a GCSE maths course. I did the O level in 1981 and got a grade B. I remember the work I had to do and had recurring nightmares about it. In a completely unscientific way I wanted to test the thesis that GCSEs were easier. OK, I was older and had more life experiences than my 16-year-old self.
I now understand the practicalities of maths and have used it throughout my career – running order timings; writing scripts to pictures where the economy of words can be calculated at three words per second; reporting business and economics when surpluses and deficits needed to be explained. But nothing quite prepared me for GCSE maths. I calculated there were forty topics; from algebra to statistics via trigonometry and theorems. Mind boggingly complicated and so much to remember in a brain which is now fighting against Father Time.
So why have results improved? There are three main reasons, I think. Let me explain the changes since I last sat exams. It’s now “modular”. This means that if you don’t do well the first time around, you can get a second chance to improve your results in the same year and walk out with a higher grade. I honestly think teaching has improved. Teachers are inspected, peer observed and set targets to such an extent their focus has to be on making sure their charges get good grades. One consequence is that students are taught to pass exams rather than enjoy the subject and explore ways to apply their learning. Finally, if our daughter is anything to go by, I just think children are far more intelligent. They seem to acquire skills and mature faster than my generation ever did. I’m completely hopeless when it comes to technology but Olivia seems to do it in her sleep.
I undertook just one GCSE. Goodness knows the pressure our daughter and others like her were under. Olivia, who turned sixteen earlier this month, took eleven subjects. That’s a lot to remember, regurgitate and relate. What we as journalists and they as politicians don’t appreciate is the level of sophistication in argument. At times we’re both guilty of dealing in short hand and don’t always let the facts get in the way of a good story. You see, not all GCSEs are the same. Some are modular but at least three which Olivia took, were so called IGCSEs or International GCSEs. The best way to explain these is that they were like the traditional old-style O levels: one exam, several days, one chance. You can understand why I felt the need to help try to clear up misunderstandings. Like most things we don’t care about the small print until it affects us.
Anyway, Olivia and I were lucky today. She came out with a brilliant eight A stars and three As. Three of the A stars were for IGCSEs, including maths, which are much harder than the GCSEs. This isn’t false modesty but I was humbled by my A*. What does my experiment tell us? Absolutely nothing, if I’m honest. It was unscientific.
I agree that we should always maintain and raise standards. But the caveat is that it has to be after finding out the real reasons for the continuing rise in grades. We do need to test whether things have been “dumbed-down”. Other wise we’ll continue to tinker at the edges rather than fix the perceived problem. As for Olivia, well she’s off to Kent to do undertake International Baccalaureates rather than A levels. But thereby hangs another tale on the English education system.
Barnie Choudhury is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Lincoln and owner of Sensei Creative Productions and former BBC network news correspondent. The views in this article are his own.