SPARE a thought for me this morning and another for all those parents pacing the floor, biting their nails and trying not to look at the clock until the allotted hour when their teenager receives their GCSE results.
No-one prepares you for this. It’s not like giving birth or potty-training. There are no handy “how-to” books available, no online revision guides or useful podcasts. Just a deep breath and, in our house at least, a philosophical attitude that there is always a solution if certain grades have not been achieved.
After all, you’re talking to a woman who left school with five O-Levels to her name, and one of those was in cooking. However, thanks to judicious A-Level choices and a sixth-form deputy headmistress who believed in me, I ended up at Oxford University studying English. I have faith, not necessarily in the education system, but in the individual to overcome the odds set before them.
My son, Jack, has heard this story a lot. It’s beginning to sound like a tale as ancient and hoary as a Norse legend, because that was more than 30 years ago and this is 2018 and the world is a much harder place. I feel sad that the odds have been so stacked against him and his friends.
They are part of the first full national cohort to take the new GCSEs devised by former Education Secretary Michael Gove. Not only were these exams stricter and more academically rigorous than their predecessors, with very little coursework, they are also marked using the new grading system.
The old A* to G system has gone. The grade scale now runs from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. If this wasn’t disconcerting enough, in many cases, the criteria for each grade has not been clearly delineated or effectively communicated to teaching staff and students, never mind parents.
This situation appears to run across the board from state schools to academies and grammars. I had lunch last weekend with a mother whose son attends one of the most prestigious grammar schools in Lincolnshire. Her intimate knowledge of how marks are calculated in each subject was astounding, but still she had no idea what grades her son might achieve.
Her obvious anxiety – she said she wasn’t sleeping and barely eating – clearly stemmed from the lack of power she felt over her son’s future.
No one really knows for sure whether grade boundaries are being lowered or lifted to reflect the new set of criteria. Even Lord Baker, the reforming former Tory Education Secretary, says that “the results are being fudged and engineered”. There’s mounting evidence that lower achievers in many schools have been moved to pupil referral units or asked to leave so the overall figures look good.
All those complaints over dumbing down and taking GCSEs a year or two early seem like ancient history. Now it’s said that only a tiny elite of about 1,000 high achievers in the entire country will secure the highest grade of 9 across a clean sweep of eight GCSEs. No wonder some independent schools have refused to let their pupils sit the new exams, opting for the supposedly easier International GCSE instead.
This brings its own issues. Parents and school leaders are arguing that if today’s results reflect badly on their youngsters, it will set yet another barrier in place when it comes to competing for the most prestigious university places against those educated privately.
And now, unbelievably, we hear that Ofsted is working on a new inspection framework in which schools will be judged on “quality of education” rather than outcomes.
How many times have Ministers been told that education is about more than grades? How many teachers and parents have railed against “teaching to the test” both at secondary and primary level, where pressure has blighted what should be the happiest of days?
Like most sensible parents, I’m all for balance. I don’t want to see arts and creative subjects sidelined or made impossible to study, sacrificed on the altar of achievements in “core” subjects such as maths and science.
My partner and I were reminiscing fondly the other day about the languages we were taught. In our 1980s Barnsley comprehensives, we enjoyed learning both French and German until the fourth year. Imagine such luxury now. At the start of her Year 7, my daughter was told that it was Spanish only and no choice.
Good schools already have quality of education at their heart of their ethos, but I fear it is too late for Jack and his classmates. They know that they have been part of a huge experiment; the only question now is how the results will influence the rest of their lives.