The sorry state of British education, part 1, GCSEs

The first in a three-part series on the sorry state of British education. Hope you enjoy these multi-part blogs. 

I started secondary school in 2008. Then, British secondary education was in a terrible mess; the Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls was presiding over a period of serious grade inflation. GCSEs, the qualification achieved by British 16-year olds, were getting easier, and the number of As and A*s being attained was increasing.

To rectify this, Balls’ successor, the Conservative Michael Gove revamped the GCSE curriculum. The subject matter would become more difficult. There would be a greater emphasis on ‘British values’, to make a more cohesive society and combat against extremism. And instead of students being graded A*-U, they would be graded 1-9, with 9 being the highest grade. The theory was that in the event of grade inflation, the exam boards could add numbers above 9 so the most capable students would be distinguished.

But in many respects, these reforms have backfired. It’s true that grade inflation has largely ceased.  But the curriculum is in many aspects too difficult. Schools are reporting increasing levels of anxiety and other mental health issues. The increasing reliance on exams over coursework doesn’t prepare students for the real world. The notion of British values is subjective and difficult to teach: are things like freedom of speech really British values or just universal liberal values? More importantly, Gove wanted to toughen the GCSE to allow state schools to compete against the more rigorous private schools. But the opposite has happened. Private schools, which use the world-recognised iGCSE, will have a higher proportion of their students get the top grade than state schools. This amounts to a major advantage for privately-educated students when applying to university. State school children will be taking harder exams than their fee-paying counterparts, in exchange for getting worse grades and consequently poorer prospects in higher education.

The lesson from all of this is that successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have failed to reform the GCSE. The curriculum changes too quickly, leaving teachers to struggle with each period of reform. The league tables are meaningless since private schools now refuse to participate in them. Comprehensive education was meant to be egalitarian. Yet we now face a system where the wealthiest parents buy houses in the best catchment areas, thus securing the best places in the state school system. And for those who can afford it (or are lucky enough to win scholarships), private education is as much of an advantage as it has ever been.

The obvious solution to all this is for all schools to adopt the iGCSE. It’s an internationally-recognised, demanding but fair qualification. Since both private and state schools would use it, league tables would regain their relevance. It would be difficult at first for state schools to adjust, but it would be worth it in the long term. Most importantly, it would prevent the constant meddling by education secretaries, since the iGCSE curriculum is run by the University of Cambridge. It would be a fair outcome for all students. If only the government had the humility to admit it.

Next Monday, the sorry state of A-levels, which you can now read here.