Opinion - The relative value of GCSEs

Charles Graham
Charles Graham

IT always pays a wine connoisseur (I’m not one) to know his vintages.

The year can make all the difference to the beverage for all manner of reasons, including the weather, so we hear.

It was an analogy which sprang to mind last Thursday when the latest set of GCSE results began to come through, showing a majority of Wigan school’s higher grades had gone down for the first time in many a moon.

I was thinking of a prospective employer who might not be well informed enough to understand the varying “vintages” of candidates’ CVs and how this could lead to unfairness in selection of candidates as tow which year they passed their exams.

Governments like nothing better than tinkering with the education system. It’s a political football which wins and loses votes and of course, like most things, is never perfect and needs to adapt to keep up with the times.

One view has been that courses should be completed in modules with a lot of assessment work and less onus on exams; another, currently now back in fashion, is that greatest emphasis should be put back on the final tests.

And because the grades have been getting ever higher for years on end, this year examiners were instructed to take a stricter line in marking. As a result there has been a fall-off in A*s.

There are convincing arguments for all these changes to whose challenge the pupils and staff ably rise.

But at the end of it all, the base material – the youngsters’ intelligence and the teachers’ abilities to teach - don’t change much from year to year.

I do think there is something to be said for it having become gradually easier to get higher marks over the years. Breaking things up into components that can be done at leisure at home, then dropped with no need to revise them again two years later for a final exam, does give you a better chance to do well. As do re-takes.

And when one system is in place for long enough, teachers will cotton on better as to how best one can pass the course with flying colours.

Just because the results get better and better each year doesn’t mean children are getting brighter and brighter (retracing our steps to the beginning of that increase would credit it us all with single-figure IQs if that were the case).

Equally, youngsters haven’t suddenly become thicker this year either, just because the goalposts have moved again.

It shouldn’t matter all this, because all you can do is your best, whatever the circumstances. But it does matter when we return to that prospective employer. Imagine he has a job vacancy for which two people of very similar personalities and with equally stimulating interests on their CVs (and, unbeknown to him, of identical intelligence) go for it.

He decides that the only way to separate them is to refer to their exam results. Yet how fair will it be that the candidate who got As in last year’s exams wins out over a candidate from this year’s who was just as bright but “only” got Bs because the marking has changed?

It will be a canny boss indeed if he has a chart telling you the relative value of grades per year.