Every time we hear about the newest set of GCSE and A Level results, we find it is a time for reflection and celebration.  Our kids have done well, cementing their legacy on their school and setting themselves up for the future.  It’s really quite a memorable time for everyone.  I can remember some of the successes I enjoyed at GCSE and then the massive relief of, despite being worried that I would drop out of Sixth Form altogether after some disappointing AS results, finding that I was on my way to university, on the back of decent Mathematics, IT and French grades.  I was really rather chuffed.

Of course, open the Daily Mail each year and there’s always some hardcore right-wing columnist who believes that not only are we all studying the wrong subjects, but we’re also seeing that horrid thing called grade inflation.  The exams are getting easier and the students aren’t getting any brighter, despite the results and averages improving generally year-on-year.  Coming from a group of people who probably haven’t sat a school exam for nearly 20 years and luckily find themselves in a nicely-paid newspaper columnist job, I think I’ll take that with a pinch of salt and keep my tongue firmly ‘in-cheek’ on that one….

It does seem that the government might have bowed down to the pressure a little bit and has decided that the best thing to do would be to shake up the system a little bit. Mainly, this’ll be through entirely changing the scale and adjusting the way it gives out marks, especially at the top end of the scale.  Suddenly, at the very top, it won’t be about how well you do, it’ll be how well you do compared to everyone else at the very top.

The new GCSE scale will make do with the A*-G scale that has been rather good (in my opinion) and instead, we are going to see a new scale that is numbered from one to nine, where nine represents the very elite.

Of course, the cynical among you might say ‘well, maybe then all the students will just get the nine, because the exams are so easy.  That way, everyone will be elite.’

Hold your horses, my friends.  It’s all going to be relative…

Only the top 20,000 students in the nation will be awarded the Level 9.  This is the equivalent to just 3% of the total, or roughly half of those currently being awarded and A*.  It’s almost like the government decided to develop the A** award or something.

Except, of course, the catch is that you could do absolutely everything to to ensure you’re ‘elite’ but your standards, your school’s standards and even your parent’s standards.  However, drop just the odd mark or two and you could find yourself being condemned to a Level 8 – and suddenly people might find it hard to justify calling you elite.  Bit sad, I know.

Sadly, the government seems content to ramp up the pressure to perform.  It’s another classic case of keeping up the testing and becoming more than exam factories.  Now though, there’s this extra pressure of having to see how you measure up against everyone else, breaking the golden rule your teachers always told you about schools and exams: ‘focus on yourself and don’t worry about how everyone else is doing.’  That little amount of self-conciousness that must take place already is only going to get stronger if they have to think ‘well, am I in the top 3% or not?’

The idea of a numbered scale isn’t so bad.  I mean, it’s almost like the UCAS points system for A Levels, which assigns a particular number to a grade in order for universities to decide their entry requirements.  Suddenly, we’ve got a more standardised system where everyone can accumulate points at different levels.

That said, I never had a problem with different letters – if it ain’t broke, why mess around with it?  If the government wanted a new elite grade, why not just change the boundaries to make the A* harder to get or just introduce an A** to separate the great from the good?

Well, it turns out there’s a rather troubling response to all of this.

The government’s idea is to use this numbered scale to link our schools and students to the International Pisa Tests – the standardised system for working out where a nation is when it comes to different skills, such as literacy and numeracy.

That’s all very well, making sure things are standardised – it helps with students mobility, something I’m a key proponent of – but if they’re going to this to measure us against other nations, then I really can’t see things going well.

I mean, yes it’s going to open our government’s eyes as to how far behind we are relative to countries like Finland and some of the Chinese cities like Shanghai… but at the same time,is that going to push us towards a more exam-based system to make sure we keep up.  After all, the greatest motivator in education for teachers and policy-makers is their own reputation – success in the classroom is rewarded financially and politically.

Does this mean that we’re going to see more and more pressure to perform to keep up an international reputation.  What if we don’t?  Are we going to develop a struggling reputation?  Is it going to deter investors and international students?  All of this has a ripple effect.

Personally, I think the idea of pushing students to be better than each other is going to be very dangerous.  I mean, if it helps them strive for perfection then fine, but I fear it’s going to make people more aware of everyone else.  In exams you do have to be slightly selfish – concentrating on your work as an individual.  All of a sudden you’re now relying on someone else to perform at a certain level to potential decide your future.

Bringing us dangerously close to measuring ourselves against other nations all the time is going to be a bad decision.  We need to focus on ourselves (as we preach in the classroom) rather than trying to measure ourselves.

The changes are due in 2017, so let’s hope some bureaucracy takes hold, for once, and stalls this particular idea.



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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.