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Primary Education News
News Will those GCSE results reflect the push for rigour or a path to inequality?
As pupil wait for their exam grades on 22 August the question arises as to whether education does foster skills employers need
GCSE results day is a day of excitement, dread, and jumping, hugging, 16-year-olds. Because of the central importance of school performance tables, it is a big day for schools and head teachers too, though usually, for them, less to do with jumping and hugging.
These GCSE results might offer the first signs of how things have changed since the government called for more rigour in national exams. This is about really testing students, distinguishing the poor from the average and the good from the very good.
In technical terms, it is about increasing the variance of the marks. More or less differentiation has a number of implications.
On the plus side, it is likely to encourage greater effort at school as those students more or less assured of an A grade will need to do more. Looking further ahead, it may enable more efficient matching of workers and jobs, raising productivity.
On the down side, it necessarily implies greater inequality of attainment and consequently greater inequality of earnings.
It is not obvious how sizeable these pros and cons are, but there is no guarantee that the outcome will be a happy one.
To some extent, this emphasis on rigour is a response to a particular reading of the continuous rise in attainment in recent years. This continuous rise is partly down to improved teaching and learning, partly due to strategic behaviour by schools, and partly to grade inflation.
Attempting to put a cap on grades at the current level treats a "symptom" when we are not even sure that there is a disease.
It is undoubtedly true that the nature of exams, coupled with the school accountability system, strongly influences what schools do. Head teachers respond to market signals, in this case changes in the how to improve the schools' performance metrics.
This is encouraging in the sense that it offers a reliable lever to produce change, but discouraging as it raises the importance of making sure the changes are fully understood before being implemented.
At the heart of the debate about GCSEs is the question: "What sort of skills should education foster?" One plausible answer, is that education should test and certify the levels of competence that students have achieved in the skills that employers want.
No one knows what skills businesses will need in 10 years' time, so we can only speculate. But given the ubiquity of the web, it seems very unlikely that "remembering large amounts of information and writing it down quickly" will figure high up on the list.
An argument for one-shot, high-stakes, closed-book, exams is that anything more open is susceptible to parental help, and so is less rigorous and more likely to favour the middle-class.
But there are other ways to make sure the summative assessment is based on the student's work alone. Parents support their children's education in so many ways – through conversation and as role models, by providing books and computers, quiet places for study, and trips.
It is worth emphasising that parents helping their children to learn is a good thing, and should be encouraged where lacking, not criticised where present. So we will see tomorrow what a greater emphasis on rigour brings.
Professor Burgess is director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol