Education notes: No surprises in summer exam results – only pain

Summer 2009 saw the usual media headlines as GCSE and A level results came out. They swung between celebration at rising pass levels to criticism about the standard and value of different subjects and exam boards. Overall, the published results confirmed that money for private education and selection of the brightest pupils is the key to success. A report from the Joint Council for Qualifications on GCSE results showed that private schools have extended their lead over comprehensive schools, with more than half of GCSE exams taken by students at fee-paying schools awarded an A or A*, compared with 17.3% from comprehensive schools. Selective Grammar school pupils outperformed students in private schools, with 55% achieving A or A*, compared with 53.7% at private schools. Exam results A*-C were awarded to 95.3% of Grammar school pupils, compared with 91.8% of pupils at private schools and 64% at comprehensives.

There are 3,211 state-funded secondary schools in the UK which are attended by 93% of pupils. Of these, 164 are Grammar schools which select pupils by exam entry at 11. Private fee-paying schools, also known as independent schools, where fees can be over £20,000 a year, are attended by 7% of secondary school pupils.

Climbing the education ladder

Statutory education in the UK ends at 16, after GCSEs. There is then a complicated structure of exams and qualifications which rations access at every level of further and higher education, leading to the goal of university admission. Even universities are graded, with Oxford and Cambridge still dominant, together with 18 others that make up the elite Russell Group. Between them, these 20 universities supply the largest cohorts of graduates for the top jobs in the legal profession, banking, the armed forces and the Civil Service.

In 2007 the Labour government set Oxford and Cambridge a target of enrolling 77% of students from state schools. That would leave 23% of places for the 7% of pupils from private schools. In fact, although in 2007 Oxford reached 53.4% of state school admissions, this has now dropped to 50%, much the same as Cambridge. Significantly, Grammar school pupils, who out-perform private pupils at GCSE, count as state sector students. This is because the small number of Grammar schools are funded like other state schools, even though their pupils are selected by admissions exams for an academic education, often excluding local children. Indeed, 33.4% of Grammar school applicants to Oxford and Cambridge have a chance of getting in, compared to 31.5% from private schools and 25% from comprehensive schools.

As increasing numbers of students gained GCSEs, including good GCSEs (five A-C grades), another story was being told behind the scenes. Exam boards are now a big part of the education business and schools can choose the one that offers the best ‘product’ for their pupils. It is rumoured that some exams are much easier, or the marking scheme more generous, and that this is why two-thirds of GCSEs were graded at least C and one in five scored A or A*. There is also a hierarchy of GCSE subjects, which is revealed by the distribution of entries. Comprehensive students made up 90% of entries for media, film and television studies, while privately-schooled pupils represented 60% of candidates for Latin and Ancient Greek. Half of independent school pupils do not sit maths GCSE, instead entering the International GCSE which is similar to traditional O levels and eases transition to A level sciences. In 1996, 61% of five GCSE

A-C results included English, maths, a science and a modern foreign language compared to 41% in 2009.

Exam results rule the school

Each year, examination results are published as if all students had been running the same race. In reality, poor children start far behind and can rarely catch up with those who have had the many privileges that money can buy to enrich childhood. Secondary schools face the threat of closure or loss of funding if they fail to produce the government target of 30% of candidates achieving five A-C grades, including English and maths, at GCSE. Meeting this target is now the biggest single priority for school heads. Pupils begin exam courses early to sit GCSEs at 13 or 14, or are entered with two or three different exam boards for the same subject; predicted D grade pupils get booster lessons in the holidays to get them a C grade. This concentration on results has led to a pass rate of nearly 100% for GCSEs, with only 1.4% of candidates failing. However, schools tend to enter only pupils who are predicted to pass GCSE. The others disappear off the school register in various ways. Of children receiving free meals, the official (but by no means definitive) indicator of poverty, 22% of boys and 15% of girls leave school with no GCSEs.

Not a race but rationing

Winning certificates for hard work and learning is, of course, a worthy reward and public recognition of young people’s achievements. But exam results are primarily a passport to the earning power of the young worker in the job market at the age of 16 or to improved wages and conditions by moving on to further and then higher education. There are increasingly fewer opportunities for retakes. Once beyond the statutory school leaving age of 16, government funding for further education colleges is being cut and courses closed down. There is also a cap on student numbers to cut public spending at university entrance level, despite record numbers of students with A and A* at A levels. This summer there were 14 applicants for each place on a degree course, up 10% from last year. Government funding has been increased for an extra 10,000 places only in maths and science.

Neets grow

The number of ‘Neets’ – young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are ‘not in education, employment or training’ – has surged to one in five of the age group. There are 947,000 Neets – up from 730,000 last year. Although Neets are characterised as underachievers and drop-outs, this group is in fact made up of young people with no qualifications, those who gained some GCSEs, those who are waiting for or who have completed short-term work experience placements, A-level students who failed to gain a university place and young workers made redundant by the recession. Labour government statements swing between fear of this group as a socially disruptive force and contempt. It is well-known that ‘non-participating’ young people are, by the age of 21, more likely to experience depression and poor physical health. The 1997 slogan ‘education, education, education’ has been exposed as a shabby election trick. The sharp rise in Neets, now at a 16-year high, matches that of Thatcher’s Tory government. Britain’s education system continues to ration education for the working class with or without examination results.

Susan Davidson

FRFI 211 October / November 2009


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