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Primary Education News
News The GCSE controversy is skewing the education debate | Zoe Williams
Squabbling over grade inflation misses the point – 1990s exams could never equip anyone for a job in 2020
At the moment, politically, these are the key fault lines that come up in speeches about GCSEs, and exams generally: has education got better as a result of New Labour's targets and inspections, or are the better results simply grade inflation? Can state schools replicate the results of private schools simply by being as good, or is there more going into a school's results than teaching and facilities alone can explain? Were things more rigorous in the old days, when exams were at the centre of everything, or does the modern approach reflect not touchy-feely liberal slackness, but a series of methodological advances?
The conversation lends itself well to political point-scoring, while the matter at hand is peculiarly unsuited to it. So you might, for instance, loathe Michael Gove's anti-teacher rhetoric – in which experience is recast as cynicism, and anybody who has been doing anything challenging for a long time must be "jaded" – but still believe that grade inflation has occurred and that, coupled with the feverish focus on results, has made education less educational over the past 20 years, not more. You would find it hard to pick a team here.
There are a number of different factors at play, and they all pull in different directions; some schools are gaming the system at the same time as others are improving; some students are working harder than ever, others are more left behind than ever. And underneath the story that the results tell, or don't tell, or can be massaged to tell, there's a change in attitude.
Expectations of kids are much higher, anybody can see that, whether they have teenage children or not. Retaking is relentless, and the idea of accepting failure alongside success is completely last century. The galling thing for the people taking exams is that, while they experience the impossibility of failure as pure pressure, to the outside world, it merely undermines success, since it has no meaning without an antonym. But none of this is really the point.
All of those questions are fighting the last war, or even the war before the last (if we take Labour's Ofsted and ever-improving GCSEs as the last one, and the closure of the grammar school system as the war before). Those involved in the education debate should stop worrying about whether exams were more rigorous in the 90s; even if they were, they could never equip anyone for a job in 2020.