TThe number of top GCSE grades has fallen this year. For high school teachers, this was no surprise; many of us have witnessed last year’s teacher grades being subject to some degree of “boosting”. It is striking where GCSE results have fallen the most. In private schools, top marks fell from 61.2% to 53%, almost four times the national average (overall, the proportion of students who got top marks this year fell from 28.9% to 26.3% ). Given that most private schools choose their students and have more resources than their public equivalents, why did they feel the need to inflate grades last year?
There are private schools here. Michael Gove appears to have introduced the numerical grading system, whereby students are given grades on a nine-point scale. Too many state school pupils were getting A* grades, so Gove introduced a new Year 9 to distinguish the top from the very top. The government seemed to brazenly assume that a further and finer layer of sifting would ensure that private school students would still come out on top. Private schools also consistently argue that GCSE exams are not rigorous enough. However, many of them take their students to the International GCSE, which still includes coursework elements and is banned in the public sector.
Unsurprisingly, institutions that exist to provide an unfair advantage to an already privileged will, when given the opportunity, behave in ways that perpetuate this inequality. The results of last year’s pedagogical evaluations became a vivid illustration of this. Teacher-rated grades were the only reasonable response to the pandemic and to the algorithm’s classroom position, but there are problems with giving final grades to teachers, particularly because their professional judgment will err on the side of good. Between 2019 and 2021, top grades in non-selective public schools increased by 7.5%. However, among private schools, inflation was almost twice as high – 14.2%.
Private schools clearly took the system’s built-in gaming ability as an open invitation more than public schools. why? First, many private schools are autonomous institutions. Public schools have strict moderation processes. In classrooms across the country, teachers check each other’s grades. If it’s too generous, we reduce it; too harsh and we celebrate it. However, the independent sector appears to have a less rigorous grade moderation process than public schools. Perhaps it is also less afraid of the regulatory authorities. After all, private schools do not come under Ofsted’s remit and have their own rather less rigorous inspection regime.
Private schools are also facing increased levels of pressure from parents. Most parents who send their children to a private school spend six figures on tuition and therefore expect their children to get better grades. This creates pressure to deliver – a factor that likely accounted for last year’s set of top marks in the sector.
Our school system favors children whose parents can afford to pay for their offspring to get high grades by sending them to private school or subsidizing their public education with an army of private tutors. In this system, it is not surprising that the independent sector, given the opportunity to dramatically inflate grades, feels that it would be rude to refuse such an opportunity. Education is like society as a whole: in a system that is unfair by design, those with the least integrity benefit the most.