Exams are like Markets . . Confidence is key

The big education story of today is the fall in the number of A* to C grades in the GCSE results.  The drop was just 0.4% which is hardly evidence of an education apocalypse, but against a background where results have been rising since 1988, this fall made big news. Compounding the issue was the larger drop in English Literature grades which fell by more than 1% and Science where the fall was 2.2%.  This chart from the BBC sums up the overall picture quite well.

The trouble with the examination system is that it has become very politicised, and charges that Michael Gove had put pressure on exam boards to raise the thresholds for grades (effectively dishing out more Ds than Cs than they would have one year ago) have been rife.  Today Gove has played the innocent, denying political interference, although this is disingenuous in the extreme as he has spoken frequently of the ‘dumbed down nature’ of the GCSE and its lack of rigour.  He was doing some serious damage to the reputation of the qualification just a few months ago when he leaked plans to replace the GCSE with a new two tier exam system similar to the O level and CSE regime in place before 1988 (http://bbc.in/NLRXzi). Gove’s insistence that he has not brought political pressure to bear is remarkable in its audacity but laughable if he thinks anyone will believe it.

Ultimately exams are like markets. Not the markets where you buy fruit and veg, but markets such stocks and shares, bonds and guilts, commodities and even houses.  All markets are largely built upon trust, or rather a collective decision to believe in the net worth of assets being traded.  Once you move beyond the simple barter system (I give you a box of tomatoes in exchange for a sack of corn), the assets of the market are codified in abstract form and become an artefact of social agreement.  When the system is working, both buyers and sellers believe in the value of the assets. They will haggle to get the best price of course, but under the market is a belief in its veracity. When confidence in markets collapses, this evaporates, as we saw with the large crashes which happened during the financial crisis which started in 2008 and has continued to this day. A loss of faith causes violent spikes  in both buying and selling (some will buy because they think the assets have become underpriced, and therefore a bargain).

Exam regimes are very similar.  There is no tangible physical entity expressed in an A at GCSE. It is a social judgement made on a student’s performance and anyone with any experience of the sharp end of examining will tell you that the system is far from perfect in its judgements (although most judgements are probably in line with each other). When confidence in an entire qualification is eroded, the result is a little like the crash in the market. People are confused and look around at what to do next. For instance, employers complain that GCSEs don’t tell them whether young people they are going to employ are literate or numerate.

Gove has welcomed this confusion as it furthers two of his political ends. The first is that it allows him to further criticise the education system and point to low aspiration and poor quality teaching which needs urgent attention. And just as the person who has only a hammer begins to see everything as a nail, he will see a change to academy status as the only solution for schools which are under-performing.  Converting community schools to academies is Gove’s big plan.  Academies become directly accountable to him upon conversion and he can control them in ways which no Secretary of State could do when the Local Authority was in an intermediary position between Whitehall and the school.  Aggregating academies into chains is another link (excuse the pun), in the plan. Silently the assets of the school are transferred to the academy chain and Gove’s dream of allowing profit from state education edges ever closer.  Convincing the public that state education can be run for private profit will be much easier when large academy chains control as many as a hundred schools.  The argument will be made that the profit made from widespread economies of scale can be ploughed back into investment.  The argument behind this will be that shareholders and a board of directors will be risking capital investing in the chain and therefore it is only right that they share in some of that profit.  Gove may well be stopped before this comes to pass, but I am convinced that it his ultimate end game for the academy programme.

Secondly the confusion around disquiet around GCSEs brings his plan for the return to the O level one step closer. The lib dems came out to oppose this plan when it was leaked and even David Cameron expressed surprise, but Gove is wily and plays the long game. Any damage to the GCSE system adds weight to his call for a return to a two tier system.

This is definitely a day to reflect on the fact that education, and the future chances of young people are far too important to be left in the hands of politicians.

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