GCSEs TO BE SCRAPPED: But are Journalists just as guilty of ‘Dumbing Down’?

This image has not been photoshopped

Michael Gove wants to get rid of GCSEs, and the press is sure to help him with either lazy, or possibly even worse – deliberately misleading journalism.

Michael Gove today announced his desire to overhaul the GCSE exam system. GCSE’s will be replaced by O-Levels (for the smart kids), and CSEs (for the… not so smart kids). Predictably, Labour shadow education mister Kevin Brennan disagreed with his counterpart’s proposal for being “a two-tier exam system which divides children into winners and losers at 14”. Maybe he’s right.

As much as the conservative government tries to not look like the nasty party, on occasion the mask inevitably slips and we catch a glimpse of what lies beneath. Historically the conservatives have represented the upper classes and that doesn’t seem to have changed much in their modern iteration. The reputation that the Tories look after the rich and do far too little to rectify social inequality isn’t exactly unearned.

But I am not here to make concrete judgement on Michael Gove’s plan. If I were, I would probably conclude that he is an evil bastard that wants a Brave New World-esque caste society. I would probably question why bringing back O-Levels from 30 years ago is a good idea, and ask why the conservatives would want to scrap GCSE exams which were of their own making. You may guess that I don’t think the plans are necessarily progress.

Yes, they were standing next to you for a reason

Working as an exam invigilator gave me a certain insight into current tests, as a two hour silent overwatch of schoolchildren can get incredibly boring. Once the ‘stand next to the ugliest child’ or ‘human pac-man’ games were exhausted, I found myself attempting some of the spare GCSE papers. A few seemed relatively simplistic – I felt I could have blagged my way through English with just a night of red bull and sparknotes (incidentally that’s how I got my 2:1 English degree), whereas higher-tier maths might as well have been written in hieroglyphics.

I concede, it may just show exactly where my own cognitive strengths (and frailties) lie. In fact, recently I had to complete an aptitude test, and suffered an embarrassing mental spasm as I tried to remember how to do addition and subtraction sums with that ancient neanderthal tool, the pencil. I managed, but still – damn you calculators and excel for making me so complacent.

Overall, I found that some GCSE papers were easy while others were very hard. It shook me a little and I vowed never to scoff at a celebrity being defeated on ‘Are you smarter than a 10-year-old?’ again. But obviously my experience was far from scientific; admittedly I am no expert on current exams, having thought about them very little since invigilating.

Oh Yes!

But reading the tabloids one can’t help but hearing about education frequently. An article usually appears weekly in the Sun or the Daily Mail, using the often repeated phrase ‘dumbing down’, whilst harking back to a glorious golden age of education. It is often accompanied with a statistic like ‘One third of Teenage pupils believe Winston Churchill is TV advert dog’ or something similar of that ilk. Of course the right-wing press also tends to look back misty eyed at the cane and capital punishment, so any assertion that ‘it were so much better in my day, young un’ should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Daily Mail broke the story of Michael Gove’s intended reforms with an implied support for the plans, though it was the bias and generally misleading journalism on display which really annoyed me. The (since altered) headline read ‘Gove plans radical move to scrap dumbed-down GCSEs’, opening with the leading assertion that GCSE’s are in fact ‘dumbed down’. It isn’t a great example of journalistic neutrality.

The rest of the article continued trying to appear even-handed while actually being incredibly biased. And then came the bombshell statement:

At first I was somewhat outraged that an exam board allowed so simplistic a question. But something didn’t quite sound right to me. I have seen a fair few GCSE science exams in my time, and that question just didn’t sound… real. So I did a little bit of digging. I contacted some sources at the Edexcel exam board, put in some freedom of information requests, pinned my findings to a whiteboard and connected the dots – like a real investigative journalist.  Ok, I didn’t really do any of that. I actually watched All the Presidents Men (to psyche myself up) then spent five minutes on google doing research. And that was all the time I needed to find out that the Daily Mail article was pretty much just misleading bullshit.  An article condemning the dumbing down of standards didn’t even have it’s own facts right. Oh, the irony. The question originally appeared in an Edexcel exam (2006). In fact, it actually went:

Many people observe the stars using:
a) A telescope
b) A microscope
c) An X-Ray tube
d) A synthesiser

And later became in the Daily Mail:

Would you look at the Moon with a microscope or a telescope?

Not quite the same, are they? Fine, the question is very simple to someone of reasonable intelligence, I can’t deny that. But the presentation of it is fundamentally altered. It originally pertained to observation of the stars, not the moon, and had four answers rather than two.

A pictorial representation of the error, for the less intelligent pupils reading this.

Possibly the most frustrating (and damning) omission was that the question appeared in the Lower Tier paper. There would have been no students passing science exams with an A* mark after facing questions of that calibre.

Rather than make my own point at this juncture I will quote someone far more eloquent who does a better job than I could. Chris Cook noted:

“The GCSE’s strength is that it is a full-spectrum exam, measuring low to high ability. It includes questions designed to distinguish candidates that should get a G from candidates than deserve an F, as well as questions to filter A* candidates from those getting an A.

The benefit of this system is that you get comparable qualifications, and there is no need for schools to attempt to sift children, guessing who will finish up with less than a C.”

As I said before, I haven’t done enough research to formulate a complete opinion on whether an overhaul of the GCSE system is good, bad, or neither. But my gut instinct (backed with a little research) suggests that it is yet another socially divisive policy.

Look a little closer, the inaccuracies begin to be repeated as ‘fact’

However, what I do know conclusively, is that the Daily Mail article is a classic example of lazy journalism. Journalists have a responsibility to report the news so that people can make their own decisions on policy. Bias is inevitable (or in the mail’s case probably intentional), but it is a journalists job to relay stories accurately if nothing else.

Rather than check that his report was fact, the mail writer simply regurgitated a misleading approximation of what he thought the infamous question was. That makes him no better than some individual spouting off their opinion in a pub and is its own special kind of ‘dumbing down’. News just becomes the start of a big, irresponsible game of Chinese whispers, which starts off with a small half-truth, and snowballs into a ‘fact’. It is the (in my opinion unethical) practice of many newspapers to influence their readership. But to do so with such obvious… unfacts is pretty low, and endemic to the right-wing media as demonstrated by the ongoing ‘Baa Baa White Sheep – Looney Left’ clichés.

So, eventually I will find myself in a pub somewhere and I will overhear someone repeat the question as being “Would you look at the Sky with binoculars or a spoon”, probably before adding “you couldn’t make it up”, or “they should bring back the cane”.

And within the last ten minutes it seems that everyone is guilty of lazy journalism. A Newsnight reporter in the lead story actually walked through a classroom before stopping in front of a microscope and telescope and proceeding to repeat the wrong Daily Mail ‘version’ of the notorious question.  And that is where lazy journalism takes us.

5 thoughts on “GCSEs TO BE SCRAPPED: But are Journalists just as guilty of ‘Dumbing Down’?

  1. Very well thought out and point well explored and put across, well done.

    Reminds me of my own trials and tribulations taking O levels in my youth, i fear for our children if they are brought back, i really do.

    Also has anyone seen Patrice? He was supposed to meet me here over an hour ago, im beginning to get quite worried.

    • Cheers for bringing this to my attention. What was originally just lazy, misleading journalism has really reached its zenith.

      Cameron was Eton, and Oxford educated yet ends up parroting a journalist who can’t even get his facts right.

    • Thanks very much 🙂 It absolutely amazes me how quickly these things become accepted as the truth.

      I agree, it is fascinating to wonder at how many seemingly insignificant half-truths end up having massive consequences.

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