Tuesday, 28 August 2012

End this grade inflation debate and listen to employers

Getting in to a tit for tat about whether exams have got easier consistently misses to address a wider point. To begin with, there is still a dearth of research available to definitively answer this question. The findings by Ofqual , the qualifications regulator, this year that GCSE and A-Levels in certain subjects have got easier may be hard to dispute, but we’re still a way off providing an unambiguous yes/no response.

There’s no doubt that schools seem to have turned into exams factories, with pupils better prepared than ever before. It is possible to argue that pupils are working harder because they realise the job market has never been more uncertain, which means university has become a must. But, it is also plausible that pupils are working harder and exams have got easier. This seems to me the most likely scenario.
The slimmest fall in GSCE pass rates (for the first time in its history) and top A-Level grades this year has been met with a resounding, “You see. We told you so,” by the dumbing down lobby. It seems almost perverse to welcome a (tiny) fall in marks as evidence of a rise in standards, but I understand the logic.

Those refusing to budge from heaping unconditional praise on teachers and pupils won’t find their enthusiasm shared by employers. For business groups, things have been far from rosy for a long time. Pupils may be doing exceptionally well year on year, but employers are increasingly frustrated by the sort of school leaver and graduate that greets them.
In its joint survey of 542 firms, employing some 1.6 million people, the CBI and Pearson Education found dissatisfaction levels with school leavers unchanged from a decade ago. Around a third of businesses remain unimpressed, with 42% having to provide remedial training in subjects such as English, Maths and IT.

Its findings, carried out at the beginning of the summer, found ‘structural issues’ dogging schools, with companies complaining that most graduates simply haven’t developed the right sort of self-management skills required.  This goes beyond getting the basics right in literacy and numeracy. Too many young people are seen to lack initiative, problem-solving and communication skills needed to get on in the workplace.
In other words, it’s way time we moved beyond the narrow yearly focus on grade inflation and started paying more attention to what businesses demand. Not just ‘teaching to the test.’ This means equipping youngsters with skills that can’t simply be measured in an examination. This plays neatly into the left’s hands and its view that an obsession with testing clouds other areas that schools should focus on.

The report, almost a replica of one released two years ago, emphasises that primary schools should deal heavily with reading, writing and maths, with secondaries advancing these skills, together with IT, and things necessary to get on in the world of work.
The persistence of these studies suggests something is wrong with how we’re educating our kids. Yes, results over the last two decades have been outstanding. Yes, more young people than ever are going to university. But step outside the confines of the educational establishment and a very different picture emerges. Time to ensure that exams are rigorous enough and students fully prepared for what meets them once they leave the safety bubble of higher education.  

This article was first published by Speaker's Chair on Tuesday 28th August 2012 

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