This summer grades have fallen slightly in Britain's schools. Top A-level marks are down by 0.4% and GCSEs fell by the same amount a week later. At first sight, this does not appear to have the potential to generate all that much media heat. Perhaps we could for once have a little calm: after all, the annual carnival surrounding those joint spectres of grade inflation and dumbing down has taken a sabbatical. The first fall in GCSE grades since their introduction? This may be nothing more than the year of the blip.
Still, if less than half a per cent does not sound alarming, remember that the effects are personal and often raw. Individual futures are at stake and schools are far from immune. One head described the day after results this year as ‘the darkest day in my time as a school leader. We fell off a cliff’.
Following several days of rising discontent the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, felt sufficiently moved to declare: ‘my heart goes out to those students who sat the exam this year’. The anger registered on Twitter (see #Gove) was far from abated by this remark. One commentator described Gove as ‘a swollen bollock of a man’. From this pretty unique anatomical perspective, the offer of his heart seems relatively minor by comparison to the bollock, if not a little insulting to its recipient.
Standards! Standards! That is the repeated refrain of the chief inspector for England, a word that almost everyone else repeats when caught short in the public eye (having been asked to proclaim what indeed it is about education that they are so committed to). This year and despite the slump, the fixation with standards continues: Is our examination system measuring these standards correctly? Is it fit for purpose? Is it rigorous enough? Or credible enough? Is our examination system raising standards or are our standards falling? Where do we rank in relation to the rest of the world? Are standards slipping? Are we about to slide into a small but surmountable depression or something deeper? As with all ethereal concerns, these standards are by their very nature unable to be questioned. And if you have the temerity to challenge the dubious value of their pursuit, you may find yourself swiftly labelled as being against education, or even for being a lover of failure: ‘Where is your faith in the little ones?’
Underlying this debate is an ideology from which we all suffer, the ethic of improvement. The implicit assumption behind much educational thought seems to be that we have come to sit astride a unilinear upward curve of educational enhancement. There is only one path to success and we are already on it (or we know what we must do to return if we stray into the gloom; so-called failing schools appreciate this only too well). There is a flat denial of the fact that there may exist several paths, many of which could be more desirable than our own, some making no reference to standards at all. The presumption that this singular route to improvement upon which we all march is so straightforwardly true, correct and proper as to be rationally unassailable, is combined with the perverse idea that examinations can then measure what might count as quality along this scale of success. It is a beguilingly simple formula.
But when the heart flutters most upon the day that examination results are revealed, when we find ourselves getting most worked up as one stretch of education comes to an end (rather than before or during), should we not doubt the whole endeavour? Could it not be that the heart education currently helps to nurture has been profoundly misled? When Gove offered his heart as a reconciliation to the hearts of others, he was speaking of a dark and barren place. The organ with which he seems concerned, the educational heart, is at risk of becoming little but a hollow muscular pump in pursuit of nothing but its pulse.