Drivers of “dumbing down” not addressed

It seems to me that for all the talk of “dumbing down” coming from politicians there is little sensible talk about what has driven it. People would rather drivel on about “all must have prizes” or some left wing conspiracy nonsense than consider the real issues. This is a shame because unless the things that cause the exams to get easier are addressed all the re-branding in the world won’t change anything. We are likely to find ourselves back where we started with a lot of time and money wasted in the mean time.

So what has driven exams getting easier?

1) Competing exam boards:

While exam boards could compete on price, efficiency, customer service, offering training etc the only way they compete that really matters is how likely kids are to get certain grades in the exam. Other things only come in as factors when exams are equally difficult/easy in my experience.

When I was at school we sat a more difficult exam because my school decided it was a better course that would make us better mathematicians. That is a decision it would be very difficult for a school to make now in the current climate.

There are some areas in which a market is not appropriate and the setting of exams is one of them.

2) League tables and parental choice:

These have made exam results paramount. Schools need to market themselves as academically successful. There’s nothing worse than bright kids leaving to go to the school up the road. This means exam results are paramount (particularly English and Maths). This drives schools to choose the easiest exam.


I have been through 6 OFSTEDs and only once have I not correctly predicted the outcome based solely on the results from last year. OFSTED causes insecure and incompetent Leadership teams to put massive pressure on staff to get results at all costs. In the run up to one summer exam we were told that we were expected to get the results up by 25% and the outcome of the OFSTED due the following year would hang on our results. That summer, after being threatened, pressured, monitored, observed and harrassed into oblivion, the Head of Maths was in the exam telling pupils how to do questions and virtually giving them the answers. All the Maths department were expected to do the same. I didn’t. The following year I had all bottom sets and BESD pupils to teach.

The end result of this (besides the outrageous cheating I have seen in exams, coursework and controlled assessments) is schools trying to find the easiest exam to enter their pupils for.

4) Vocational GCSE equivalance:

5A*-C including E+M could have, for a long time, consisted of English, Maths and a vocational qualification. This meant pupils not passing English and Maths could be removed from most other subjects to focus on English and Maths. In one school I know of many pupils left school with English, Maths, BTEC Science and Sports Science and little or nothing else. It’s 5A*-C inc E+M after all.

The problem is that while vocational qualifications may be equivalent to GCSE and A level on paper they are less demanding. They also have less currency. Most schools I have worked in have only put “non academic” pupils (a mixtures of weak pupils and complete arses). In some schools the teachers running the courses do more of the work than the pupils do.

The problem is that kids that can pass their GCSE with C grades will almost certainly take GCSEs. I wonder what impact making vocational courses more demanding so they are truly equivalent with GCSEs would have on the number and demographic of pupils taking them.

I’m not sure why a separate qualification is needed at all to be honest. Why not just have a GCSE in plumbing, plastering etc?

5) A utilitarian view of what schools are for:

I love Maths. I love the beauty and simplicity of Maths. I teach Maths because I want my pupils to enjoy Maths, to see the importance and the beauty of the subject. I want them to get better at Maths.

For me this means firstly knowing more mathematical content and secondly being more able to apply their knowledge, see how the different topics are inter-connected and see how their mathematical knowledge relates to their lives and what they might be doing in other subjects.

If I make my pupils good at Maths then they will pass the exam. If I make them able to pass the exam I have not necessarily made them any good at Maths (or even numerate for that matter)

If all we are doing is trying to get pupils through their exams then we do them a disservice because the exams aren’t great exams (as I blogged here )

I have repeatedly been told my HODs and SLT over the years that we are not trying to create future mathematicians and that we just want the pupils to get through the exam. Why? Why not create future mathematicians? 

I think dumbing down will exist for as long as these issues do and rebranding the exams won’t fix the situation. Nor will making the exams harder.


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