A-level and GCSE examination results increasingly attract media interest when they are released each August. Pundits tend to come up with all sorts of spectacular reasons why the results are better, or worse, or the same as the year before. This year has been no exception. The A- level pass rate was up slightly, so there was a call for an inquiry into the standard of A-level examinations on the assumption that it might be getting easier. Meanwhile, the GCSE results were very similar to those for 1994, a phenomenon which was described as "a slowing down in the improvement of standards at GCSE", leading some pundits to blame schools, teachers and the Government's education policy.
All this can be very disheartening for pupils, along with their teachers and parents. What is important to them is their own results and all the work that has gone into achieving them. Neither GCSE nor A-level examinations are perfect, but they are certainly both highly rigorous examinations, which are closely monitored and controlled by the examination boards and government agencies such as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and Ofsted. For this reason, the results have a recognised value in assessing the achievements of individual pupils.
One of the many things that public examination grades are not so good at is acting as some kind of simple thermometer of national educational standards. Average results will go up and down, from one year to the next, as a result of a complex set of factors and circumstances. One fairly significant, but rarely mentioned, issue in all of this relates to the demographic changes that occur between those entering from one year to the next. The OPCS birth statistics for the period from 1972 to 1979, when most of the past eight cohorts of GCSE candidates were born, show that this was a time of considerable change in the UK's population. A decline which started in the mid-1960s in the national birth rate was predominant in social classes III, IV and V. Year on year this has caused the proportion of children from middle-class family backgrounds (social classes I and II) to increase in each of the first seven GCSE cohorts from 1988-1994 (see below). By 1979, when most of this year's GCSE candidates were born, this effect had started to reach a plateau, as a result of an upturn in the birth rate in social classes III, IV and V after the trough in 1977. …