The amount of nonsense being talked about the new GCSEs in English and maths, whereby exams have been graded 9-1 rather than A*-G, is astonishing. The new grading system is ‘gibberish’ and will cost young people jobs, according to the Institute of Directors. The NSPCC thinks greater differentiation at the top end, with 9 being worth more than A*, will take a terrible toll on children’s mental health, while Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says the new system is ‘inherently ridiculous’. ‘To put 1 at the lowest and 9 at the top when the grades go alphabetically in a different order from A* to G just seems to put the icing on the cake,’ she says.
Let us take these points in reverse order. There are two reasons why 9 is the highest grade and 1 the lowest. First, in most other countries that use a numerical system, 1 is the lowest grade so to do the opposite would create confusion. Second, it makes it easier to add higher grades in the future — a 10, for instance. If Ofqual, the exam regulator, had made 1 the highest grade it would effectively be saying that the most brilliant students of tomorrow can never be better than the most brilliant students of today, which is obviously nonsense.
What about the NSPCC? Its argument is that the existence of an even more rarefied grade than A* might make children try harder. No, I’m not making that up. ‘Children may feel worried about being the first to go through this new grading system,’ a spokesman for the charity told the Times, ‘and with an extra level achievable it’s possible some might feel pressured to get the top level.’
Oo-er missus. Whatever next? Just to be clear, the leading children’s charity in the country thinks its job is to ‘protect’ children by discouraging them from striving for excellence. Makes you wonder how we came second in the Olympics.
As for the Institute of Directors, it doesn’t seem to have much confidence in the intelligence of its members. It believes that the switch from letters to numbers will leave them hopelessly confused and unable to assess the credentials of prospective employees. Really? So the directors of successful companies can read balance sheets, negotiate contracts and manage thousands of workers, but will be unable to grasp that a 7 is better than a 5 in GCSE maths?
‘They might think, “What is this gibberish, and what does it mean, and how has it changed from previous grading systems?’’’ says Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute. Well, yes, Seamus, they might. But if they really are that thick they probably shouldn’t be running companies.
OK, those are the criticisms. What are the arguments in favour? Well, for one thing, ‘project work’, which children used to complete in bite-size chunks during their two-year GCSE courses and which contributed to their final grades, has been done away with in English and maths, with the other subjects to follow. That means time wasted on revision, ‘controlled assessments’ and re-sits can now be spent on absorbing more knowledge. There’s also less room for teachers to game the system, with evidence suggesting they mark their pupils’ coursework too generously in the hope of improving their batting averages.
The new system will also provide universities and employers with more accurate information about children’s abilities. Last year, 60 per cent of all GCSEs were graded C or above, but they were only divided between four different categories. In the new, reformed GCSEs, once they apply to every subject, the top 60 per cent will get one of six grades, from 4 to 9. So those who would have got Cs in old money will either get 4s or 5s, depending on how good they are, and those who would have got Bs will be split between 5s and 6s. More importantly, the 22 per cent of students who would have got As or A*s will be graded 7, 8 or 9, with the very top mark being reserved for the best 3 to 5 per cent.
The only downside of more differentiation is that it increases the likelihood of error — narrower grade boundaries mean the chances of examiners missing the target are higher. But if avoiding error is your priority, why grade papers at all? The only way to guarantee no mistakes is to give all children the same mark. Then again, perhaps that is what Mary Bousted, the NSPCC and the Institute of Half-Wits would prefer. No room for confusion there, eh Seamus?
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.