Bringing honesty back into exam standards

14 October 2011

The Royal Society of Chemistry's plan to arrest the slide in GCSE science standards has been cited in a major speech by the education secretary Michael Gove.

He referred to the RSC's stance in a speech to Ofqual, and then the Daily Telegraph published a Leader article based on the issues.

The RSC first called attention to the erosion in standards in 2007 and continued its push to right the situation through to this year.

This is the text of the Telegraph comment article. 

In republishing the piece the RSC stresses that it the society is non-partisan and it monitors the Coalition's science and education policy as strenuously as it did Labour, and is spotlighting the drop in science funding that has prevailed since it assumed power last year.

Thanks to decades of grade inflation, and an all-must-have-prizes mindset in too many of the country's classrooms, we have a public examination system that is failing badly. Universities and employers find the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff increasingly difficult. Students are cheated because a system designed to sort by ability no longer does that honestly or fairly. While exam grades have got better and better, our position in international league tables has become worse and worse. According to the OECD, we have "stagnated" while other countries forge ahead: at the age of 15, British pupils are roughly two years behind Shanghai's. The long-term economic impact of this decline could be immense. 

In an important speech yesterday to the exam regulator Ofqual, Michael Gove delivered a welcome blast of common sense. The Education Secretary was unsparing in his criticism of the status quo. He pointed out that an increasing number of universities are being forced to offer remedial courses for students who are unprepared for further study; that the Royal Society of Chemistry had noted a "catastrophic slippage" in school science standards; and that Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College London, has described GCSEs as offering "soundbite science" based on a "dumbed-down syllabus". The Secretary of State went on to question the validity of an exam system "that no longer allows us to distinguish the best candidates. we may soon have to invent a Milky Way of A double and triple stars simply to allow the top performers to stand out". 

Fortunately, Mr Gove's proposals for ending this insidious drift towards mediocrity were equally trenchant. He suggested that the number of A*s awarded each year could be fixed, to set a genuine benchmark of excellence. Tougher marking might mean that some GCSE and A-level results actually dip - something that has not happened for almost 30 years. Yet as he rightly argued, it is better to be honest with our children and with ourselves by having an exam system that has integrity. 

Mr Gove also floated an idea that could be truly revolutionary. He admires the system that has been introduced in Burlington Danes Academy in West London, in which every pupil knows where they have come in every subject, whether that is first or 101st. Parents have embraced the scheme, because it gives them information they have hitherto been denied. In turn, it allows teachers to be assessed on the basis of which of them add value, as shown by changes in the rankings. Of course, the teachers' unions will loathe the idea - which is all the more reason to try it out. 

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