Why aren’t exams going ahead?

When Boris Johnson talked about trusting teachers, I suspected that the government must be desperate. Trust is not a word I have head much in my 25-year teaching career. I am no longer trusted to go into a GCSE exam hall to look at the paper that my class is sitting in case I somehow manage to undermine the integrity of the exam. But that was 2019. This morning Gavin Williamson confirmed that this year, it will come down to me and my colleagues in school. There will be no exam papers, no external markers, and certainly no algorithms. Before the pandemic we weren’t even trusted to mark coursework for

Why Williamson’s u-turn won’t affect all GCSE students

The future became more uncertain for hundreds of thousands of youngsters this week when Gavin Williamson cancelled their GCSE exams. But pupils at some of Britain’s top public schools were affected less than their contemporaries in state maintained schools. Why? Because what Williamson did not talk about when he cancelled exams were International GCSEs. Broadly equivalent to domestic exams, and offered by the same exam boards, they are marketed worldwide and, unlike GCSEs, look set to go ahead this summer. Britain’s educational divide has always been fairly stark. And this decision could further widen that gap between rich and poor pupils. As a teacher, I was pleased to hear Williamson tell

Vocational students are being treated with contempt – again

England’s third national lockdown is an avalanche of news, affecting just about every bit of our lives. It’s a lot for anyone to grasp, but that’s still not an excuse for the fact that, once again, young people studying for technical qualifications such as BTECs have been ignored and let down. According to the Association of Colleges, around 135,000 students are due to take assessments or sit exams in colleges this week: some exams are due today. And while the Prime Minister in his televised address last night talked about school and the need to cancel summer exams such as GCSEs and A-levels, the Government currently considers that BTEC tests

School report: a round-up of recent stories from the front line in education

      Unconditional Offers   In the last Spectator Schools, Ross Clark wrote about the dangers of ‘unconditional offers’, whereby a university offers a student a place irrespective of their exam results. The topic has come back into the news following this year’s A-level results, with headmasters bemoaning the apathy among students that unconditional offers can create. A number of heads blamed unconditional offers for the drop in top A-level results, with Universities Minister Jo Johnson writing that unconditional offers risk ‘undermining the faith which rests in our education system’. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, confirmed that it was concerned over the rise in such

Why was a GCSE student disqualified for criticising halal meat?

We have to talk about the schoolgirl who was disqualified from a GCSE exam on the grounds that she had made ‘obscene racial comments’ about Islam. This bizarre incident is being chalked up to overzealous wokeness on the part of some GCSE examiners. But it’s more than that. It tells us a bigger story about 21st-century Britain and the creeping criminalisation of any questioning of Islam. Too many institutions now believe it is their role to monitor and even punish anti-Islam ‘blasphemy’. The girl — Abigail Ward — is 16 years old and a strict vegetarian. In her GCSE Religious Studies exam she wrote some critical comments about halal meat.

School report | 14 March 2019

Should we scrap GCSEs? A senior MP has suggested getting rid of GCSEs and reshaping A-levels altogether; but not everyone agrees. Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, wants to rewrite the exam system so that A-levels include a mixture of vocational, academic and arts subjects, arguing that ‘all the concentration should be on the final exam before you leave’. ‘All young people should have access to the technical and creative subjects that will give them the skills that employers are looking for,’ says Halfon. ‘We must move from knowledge-rich to knowledge-engaged.’ The Department for Education, on the other hand, shows no sign of dropping GCSEs, describing them as

The problem with measuring progress

The Department for Education (DfE) published its finalised data on the 2018 GCSE results last week, revealing that, for the second year running, white pupils are doing worse in English secondary schools than any other ethnic group. According to the new Progress 8 measure, which assigns a score to GCSE entrants based on how much progress they’ve made between the ages of 11 and 16 relative to children of similar abilities, Chinese pupils do the best, with a score of 1.08, Asians are second (0.45), then blacks (0.12), mixed race (-0.02) and, bringing up the rear, whites (-0.10). What that score means is that on average white children are behind

Money can’t buy good exam results

A paper published last week in an academic journal called npj Science of Learning attracted an unusual amount of press attention. It looked at the GCSE results of 4,814 students at three different types of school — comprehensives, private schools and grammars — and found that once you factor in IQ, prior attainment, parental socio-economic status and a range of genetic markers, the type of school has virtually no effect on academic attainment. Less than 1 per cent of the variance in these children’s GCSE results was due to school type. I should declare an interest, since I was one of several co-authors, along with the distinguished behavioural geneticist Robert

Ross Clark

The Government is doing nothing to tackle GCSE grade inflation

The whole purpose of changing the grading structure for GCSE exams was supposed to be to guard against the curse of grade inflation – whereby, over time, it becomes easier and easier to gain a good grade. How unfortunate, then, that the government has inflated the grades before the first exam results using the new system are published in August. The new scheme replaces the existing A – G grades. In future, candidates will be awarded a grade from 1 to 9, with 1 being the highest level of attainment and 9 being the lowest. The bottom of grade 1 is to be aligned with the bottom of old grade

As easy as 1, 2, 3…

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*

Hard lessons

George Tomlinson, the post-war education secretary, declared that politicians should leave exams to the teachers because ‘the minister knows nowt about curriculum’. Today, however, the curriculum seems to be in a state of permanent revolution. The new GCSEs, for example, are marked on a nine-point scale: a grade of 7 or above indicates what used to be an ‘A’. For every five students who hit the 7 threshold, only one will get 9, the top mark. How employers are meant to understand this is another question. The GCSE overhaul is the latest of a series of reforms, started by Michael Gove seven years ago, which are intended to ‘restore confidence’

Parents, not schools, are key to the knowledge gap

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has just published a report looking at the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged 16-year-olds in England — and the news is not good. While the gap has narrowed by three months since 2007, it is still 19.3 months. That is to say, it is as if disadvantaged pupils have received 19.3 months less schooling than their peers by the time they take their GCSEs. For the persistently disadvantaged, i.e. those who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their school lives, the gap is 24.3 months. Most people’s instinctive reaction to this news will be frustration and

GCSEs and the arts of lobbying

For the past six years or so a variety of arts organisations have been campaigning against the English Baccalaureate, or the ‘EBacc’, as it’s known. To meet this standard, schoolchildren have to get grade C or above in seven GCSEs (Eng lang, Eng lit, maths, two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language) and, according to the campaigners, this means students have been turning away from arts GCSE subjects such as music, drama and dance. They claim that since the EBacc’s introduction by Michael Gove, arts education has been decimated. Now, I have some sympathy for the lobby groups making this argument. The first part of their case — that

The Spectator’s Notes | 17 November 2016

On a day when much fuss was being made about ‘false news’ on the net, it was amusing to study the Times splash of Tuesday, greedily repeated by the BBC. It concerned a ‘leaked’ memo, ‘prepared for the Cabinet Office’ and ‘seen and aided by senior civil servants’. The memo, from a Deloitte employee, was in fact unsolicited. It was not a bad summary of why the government’s Brexit plans are confused, but its status was merely that of journalism without an outlet. By the use of the single word ‘leaked’, a piece of analysis was turned into ‘news’ — false news. At least two former Spectator figures understood things


Picture the scene: an Englishman loudly-ordering food in a Parisian restaurant. The waiter rolls his eyes at the customer’s stubborn commitment to soldiering on in English, and everyone in the-vicinity has the good grace to look suitably embarrassed. This may sound like a tired 1970s stereotype. Except, tragically, it’s just as likely to serve as a prophecy for our future. Three quarters of the UK’s residents are unable to hold a conversation in any language other than English. This reluctance — or lack of interest — is echoed in this summer’s academic results. This year the number of entries to French GCSE exams fell by 8.1 per cent compared to 2015,

Barometer | 1 September 2016

Behind the cover-up Some facts about Burkinis: — The Burkini was invented by Ahedi Zanetti, a Lebanese-born Australian businesswoman, in 2004 after watching her niece trying to play netball in a hijab. — Muslim lifeguards started wearing them on Sydney beaches in 2007. — According to Zanetti, 40% of her customers are non-Muslim. — Two years ago, several swimming pools in Morocco were reported to have banned them for hygiene reasons. Drowning by numbers Five men drowned at Camber Sands in Sussex after being trapped playing football on a sandbank. Where did the 311 people who drowned in Britain last year die? Coast/beach 95 River 86 Out at sea 26

In praise of free schools

Congratulations to all those free schools who got their GCSE results this morning. We don’t yet have the full picture, but early reports are good. Top marks to Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn, a free school that opened in 2012. Ninety-five per cent of its pupils achieved five A* to C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths, a metric known as ‘5A*–CEM’. To put this in context, last year’s 5A*–CEM national average was 56.1 per cent. Another school that has done well is Dixons Kings Academy in Bradford. It was one of the first 24 free schools to open in 2011 – it was originally called

Diary – 7 July 2016

All hail social media. In January, I lost my beautiful pussycat Mr Mew, and I have spent six long months worrying about him. But last week he came back. His return is entirely thanks to nice people on Facebook and Twitter posting pictures and then alerting me when a sad, similar looking stray was found living rough a few miles away. Mr Mew is a bit starved and missing a few teeth, but I’m hoping that with love, food and shelter he will soon be restored to his former slinky self. And I’ll never be rude about social media again. I will, however, allow myself to be rude about the

The lessons of exam results season

Every year without fail, as the trees start thinking about losing their leaves, the papers are full of the same photographs and the same stories. The pictures are of groups of teenagers grinning triumphantly — hugging one another or throwing their exam results in the air in joy. What we have just experienced is exam results week; or, to be precise, results fortnight: first A-levels and then, one week later, GCSEs. GCSEs lead to A-levels, A-levels to university (and yet more exams) — and then at the end of it all? Well, that’s the next obstacle. But for parents, as well as children, the endless tests can be incredibly confusing.

Tristram Hunt backs scrapping GCSEs and urges Labour to be more radical on education

Tristram Hunt’s education policy was assumed to be a victim of Ed Milband’s straitjacket. But now, the shadow education is free to speak his mind about where Labour went wrong and his actual thoughts on education policy. On the Today programme this morning, Hunt explained why he was sticking the boot into Miliband for the second time in 24 hours: ‘It’s right that every shadow cabinet member reflects on their area of policy. We suffered a crushing defeat and we need to know what went right and what went wrong. One of the frustrations of the election campaign is that many of the public’s priorities on education — smaller class sizes, better apprenticeships, better qualified teachers