Home > General Politics > The GCSE grading scandal: where I think we’ll find the smoking gun

The GCSE grading scandal: where I think we’ll find the smoking gun

Sunny from Liberal Conspiracy asked me last night whether I’d be writing up first reactions to the breaking English GCSE scandal, but I declined because, although as a comprehensive school governor with specific responsibility for English I’m reasonably well informed, I didn’t feel I had enough information at that point to make comment on the specifics.

Instead, I recommended James Hargraves’ post for publication at Liberal Conspiracy, as I thought it did a really good job of summarising what we did know at the time, as well as making a pretty reasonable initial case for why it had happened, namely that it’s part of the Gove masterplan to pass over 200+ more schools to the burgeoning academy chains like the Ark schools (most of which also saw grade drops, perversely). 

Having looked at the matter during the day. I think I’m now in more of a more informed position to suggest what I think has been happening. 

Broadly, I think James is right to point the finger at Gove for deliberate political interference, but I think that interference may have been (deliberately) more indirect, and therefore deniable, than first supposed.

First things first, though.  The right is already setting out the argument that this drop in grades comes simply because assessment has become more rigorous under Gove’s watch, that C grade and above no longer comes so easily, and that this marks an important turning point for education in this country. 

This is nonsense.  The issue is not whether grades are harder to achieve, because if they are harder to achieve for everyone, it’s still a level playing field (excepting for the moment that it might be incongruous to raise the 5 A-C grade minimum for schools from 35% to 40%, while at the same time making it more difficult to achieve 40%).

The issue is that, because the grading goalposts have been moved halfway through the year, without anyone being told, there is a massive detrimental effect on many thousands of students. 

To understand this, you have to understand that – unlike the old days when children were sent into an exam and told just to do the best they can, often with only a hazy idea whether they were B, C or D material – ALL students now work towards an individualised target (indeed they do this from Key Stage 1 in primary school onwards).  In year 11, this target becomes closely associated with the controlled assessments they undertake, and come exams at the end of the year all students have a pretty good idea what their ‘prediction’ is, and what they might achieve if they really perform well in the last months at school.  

It is this individual ‘tracking’ of students, associated often with individual learning support approaches worked out carefully by teachers with Heads of Department (and in some cases actually implemented by well-trained Teaching Assistants under qualified teacher supervision).  The system, backed by quite refined IT systems, works well, and is a key factor behind rising grades in  recent years (though it has impossible to disaggregate its effect wholly from artificial exam board-driven grade inflation, of which more below). 

Put simply, teaching methods and systems have improved, because students can be set realistic but challenging targets, and students has responded by learning more, and getting better grades.

In 2012, all this has gone wrong because the goalposts have been moved. Students who, till yesterday, could be confident at least of a C, based on their performance to date and their teacher’s professional assessment suddenly find themselves with a potentially life-worsening D (nor enough, for example, to enter nursing), for no other reason than a late change of grade boundary announced to no-one.

No wonder teachers up and down the country, left to pick up the pieces this morning, are steaming. Here’s one personal experience of just that, replicated all over the country. Read it and weep.

Information is still emerging on exactly what goalposts have been moved where, but it looks like English has been badly affected, and within that it looks like the grade boundaries to achieve a C are the ones that have been increased the most.  Further, it now looks certain that when in the school year students undertook their controlled assessments (CAs) has been a key factor, because ofQual said so in May (the same month as these students finished!).

Thus one informed commenter at TES Online says:

Why is nobody just admitting that it is only grade boundary changes that have made the difference? For the first year our CA [controlled assessment] marks are worse than exams – like others, if we had submitted in January we would be around 8% better off due to CA grade boundary shift of 6 marks. Exam boards need to find adequate answer – as it is same task, just different submission date. I should have realised that just like holidays, UMS points are more expensive in the peak season!

And as Chris Cook reports, there seems there is an emerging pattern:

Schools also said that the fall in results was concentrated on children taking exams in the summer, rather than the winter. The exam boards acknowledged that grade boundaries in English qualifications had risen between January and July.

Brian Crosby, head of the Manor Church of England Academy in York, told the BBC that in his city, “every school where they had taken the summer examination had had a 10 to 12 per cent drop in performance”. Those that took exams in the winter “were either happy or had an increase in performance”.

The reports of such marked falls in grades are simply too many to write off as a coincidence, but the question still to be answered is why this boundary regrading has taken place within 2012. As importantly, why do they appear to have had such huge effects in some schools, but not in others?  Gove himself has denied any direct responsibility, as has OfQual (though they have given mixed messages), and in the narrow sense they are probably correct.

The answer lies, I suspect, with the six different examination boards, and their ‘market pressures’ and I think it is here where we will, in the near future, find the smoking gun.  .

Let me explain.

In June, the Commons Select Committee set out its views on why grade inflation may have taken place:

It is implicit in a number of the pieces of evidence we have received that such competition is one of the contributory factors to the grade inflation that is widely acknowledged. Put simply, in a world where schools are under pressure to achieve ever-better exam grades, and exam boards measure their own performance by market share, there is an obvious inbuilt incentive for competing exam boards to provide syllabuses which make lesser demands of students (para.59)

 But the rules of the game have now changed, and the exam boards know that. 

Gove is known to favour the establishment of a single examination board to stop what he calls “competitive dumbing down” (although the Select Committee says it is too risky).  Because Gove is also known to favour grade deflation, it is highly likely that the race is now on between the six exam boards to reverse their market-driven upgrading as quickly as possible, in order to position themselves for the tender exercise which, in all probability, may take place before next year’s GCSE results come out.

This, I suggest, may well explain the mid-year change of grade boundaries.  The fact that Gove went public on the single exam body idea in the Spring (though the Select Committee knew his views in December 2011) and that the grade boundaries were changed immediately afterwards is not quite the smoking gun we’re looking for, but I’d bet good money that it’s no coincidence.

I’d also be tempted to bet on one other thing.  

I think we’ll find, as the data emerges, that not only do different levels of grade deflation correlate very closely with the different exam boards, but that the leader of the deflation pack will turn out to be Edexcel, the exam board owned by multinational publisher Pearson (there’s already a hint of that in Chris Cook’s post at the FT, although Chris may be treading carefully given that Pearson own the FT).

I’m fingering Pearson because of this little exchange between the aforementioned Select Committee and Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK:

Pat Glass MP:……..  If the Secretary of State decides after all this-there is an issue of public confidence here-that we are going to have one exam body, which will be in-house, where we will have a separation of examinations from publications, would that not give the public, parents, employers and young people themselves greater confidence in the integrity of the system?

Rod Bristow: I would say that it is worth looking back 10 years to see what the exam system was like then, when there was huge disarray in the system, with students routinely not getting their results on time or getting incorrect grades. A tremendous amount of progress has been made since then and that is worth bearing in mind. In fact, that was the time that Pearson became involved and Edexcel became part of Pearson. We made a significant investment at that time of £35 million into an awarding body where profitability was extremely low……… It is absolutely right that we review all of the available options and whether there are ways that the system can be improved. The Secretary of State recently put a suggestion on the table and I would say that no suggestions that can be made to improve the system should be off the table.

This smacks of a corporate schmoozer who knows where the future profit is going to be – not in competing for market share with five other boards, but in running the whole shebang – and who knows how to go about getting the contract.  The approach differs markedly from other exam board representatives questioned on that day by the Select Committee, who express reservations about the idea of a single exam board. 

It may come as no surprise, in this context, that the publishing arm of Pearson UK is very nicely placed indeed as a supplier, on a restricted list, of the phonics publications and equipment in which all primary schools now need to invest as a result of Michael Gove’s instruction that all children must learn to read through phonics, and will be tested at age 6.  It would appear that, in this respect at least,  the freemarket doesn’t apply to Gove’s education revolution.

So where does this leave us? 

Certainly, I accept that some of the above is circumstantial, rather than evidence-based, for the simple reason that the evidence is still emerging.  Time will tell if I’ve added 2 and 2 to make 4, but if I’m anything like right (and if so, the whistleblowers will blow) it may be that James Hargraves’ supposition – that grades have been deliberately manipulated as a convenient route to the hiving off of even more schools as academies, whatever the cost to thousands of 16 year olds – may actually look tame in comparison with the truth. 

That truth may turn out to be one of corporate/government corruption of the highest order, in which Gove is able to offer up plausible deniability about today’s events because he just didn’t need to intervene directly, confident in the knowledge that his chosen corporates would do the dirty work for him. 

Watch this space.

Categories: General Politics
  1. August 23, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    Thanks for your views on this Paul, very valuable.

  2. Christopher Whitty
    August 24, 2012 at 12:52 am

    Thanks for an excellent post

  3. Richard
    August 24, 2012 at 10:48 am

    My tweet to DfE yesterday at 5pm

    @educationgovuk “Entirely free from any political pressure”? Apart from your threat to shut all qualification boards except one, Gove!

    Great conspiracy theorist minds think alike, Paul.

  4. August 24, 2012 at 11:38 am


    Are you familiar with Diane Ravitch’s blog?

    Despite having served the Bush I administration she is now perhaps the most effective critic of the privatisation of American schooling and has done multiple posts on Pearson’s role in it:


    Something we are missing is the degree to which our right and their global corporate paymasters are now simply copying whole sections of the US Republican playbook (minus of course the Christianist nonsense which doesn’t play over here) – indeed this was precisely what Liam Fox’s hyperactive little chum was up to organising all those conferences and fact finding tours when the Tories were in opposition.

    Truly it is the capitalists who have no country now.

  5. August 24, 2012 at 10:56 pm


  6. August 26, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Fine, but I think you are so wrong to attribute better grades in recent years to target setting and the whole culture that goes with it. Targets suit some people/children but not all by any means. If you set me a target I would be more than likely to do the opposite, and I’m not even an adolescent and we know they ‘need’ to do the opposite.

  7. August 28, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Listening to Ms Stacey on Newsnight, I suspect that OfQual is pulling the exam board strings, Pearson and all. Their power to fine boards for non- compliance is immense. Pearson are mindful of this.


    is a very revealing document, especially the appendices.

  1. August 24, 2012 at 10:04 am
  2. August 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm
  3. August 25, 2012 at 5:53 pm
  4. August 26, 2012 at 7:23 am
  5. August 26, 2012 at 9:46 am
  6. November 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm

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