Unreformed GCSEs have hindered our ability to compete in the global race

Chris Skidmore
WITH thousands flocking to Britain’s great universities, it is easy to kid ourselves that our education system is the envy of the world. But kidding ourselves is exactly what we’ve been doing. The sad fact is that, in a competitive world, we’ve been standing still as other countries race ahead. Yesterday’s announcement of reforms to GCSEs will go a long way to beating a culture of low expectations that has left us hamstrung.

Instead of making significant improvements to education, grade inflation has been allowed to run rampant. Year-on-year test scores have shown improvements, yet independent, internal tests run by the OECD offer no evidence to back up these rises. A Durham University study found that a student sitting their exams in 1996 would have achieved a grade higher ten years later.

The result is that Britain has slipped down the global rankings. In the latest international comparison of students in reading, maths and sciences by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), not once does the UK feature in the top ten. Our performance in maths and reading is particularly worrying, where we stand at twenty-eighth and twenty-fifth respectively.

It is the rapidly-growing countries of Asia that really stand out. Korea, Hong Kong, China and Singapore consistently show us up. Last year, in Britannia Unchained, a book I co-authored with other Conservative MPs including the now education minister Elizabeth Truss, we looked at what Britain must do to stay globally competitive among Asian and Bric nations. In common with other countries with successful education systems, these nations have radically higher expectations of pupils than we do. And with higher expectations come higher demands placed on students at an early age, with more rigorous exams that shun coursework, and which do not let students take the easy option.

The result is that students stay committed to the core subjects that matter. In Japan, 85 per cent take advanced maths post-16; in Taiwan, the figure is 70 per cent; in South Korea, it is 57 per cent. By contrast, advanced maths take-up in the UK ranges from 11 per cent in Wales to 13 per cent in England. The CBI has shown that, under our current system, young people leaving school with poor maths skills costs the economy £2.4bn a year. Without an “uplift” in maths and numeracy, it has warned, the UK would fall behind in fields like environmental technology, pharmaceuticals and the creative industries.

Grade inflation at GCSE level has been just one symptom of the wider problem of an “all must have prizes” mentality, which has erroded our ability to judge what are the subjects that matter. From 1997 to 2010, the number of pupils taking an academic core of English, maths, two sciences, a language and either history or geography more than halved to 22 per cent. The first step towards fighting low expectations was the introduction of the EBacc measure of school performance, which has already significantly improved take-up of these core subjects to 41 per cent this year.

Next on the list for GCSE reform is the rise of controlled assessments – coursework done under exam conditions, marked by teachers – and modular exams, which allow for multiple re-sits. These have left pupils facing a barrage of testing, each focused on bite-sized chunks of information. Research by Cambridge Assessment, the exam board, has found this gets in the way of proper learning, preventing the development of the skills pupils need to succeed later on in life, with the poorest pupils disproportionately harmed.

These will largely be removed, with a single assessment at the end of the course for most subjects. Assessments will also be more challenging. In subjects like English and history there will be longer, more demanding essay questions, while in maths and science, students will no longer be led through familiar problems, forcing them to demonstrate real understanding. And spelling and grammar will account for 20 per cent of the marks of an English exam. It seems hard to disagree that the basic fundamentals of literacy should count towards a pupil’s final mark.

The grading system will also be changed, replaced by a numerical series from one to eight. While pupils could previously get the top mark, despite sometimes being 20 marks apart, the new system will reward those who achieve at the higher end – and will address the problem of grade inflation.

While these exams will expect more from pupils, the truth is that pupils are already working hard. But they aren’t being rewarded for their efforts by an exam system that should be working harder for them. After all, it is their future that the culture of low expectations jeopardises. There’s no going back from globalisation, nor can we turn away from the global race. Unreformed, GCSEs will leave us at the starting blocks with our laces tied together. If we want to compete, we need our exam system to join the twenty-first century.

Chris Skidmore is Conservative MP for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee.