In a recent column for The Telegraph, Angela Epstein branded Jeremy Corbyn as “too thick to be prime minister”. The basis of this accusation was the Labour leader’s two Es at A-level, among his other academic adventures. In a world where jobs are won on the basis of experience and networks, one might expect Corbyn’s A-levels – taken in the late 1960s – to be ancient history. Yet the fact this argument can be made in a national newspaper shows that school qualifications matter long into one’s life, and are expected to stand for something.
Indeed, qualifications matter so greatly that the Department for Education has for more than a year now been consulting teachers and other interested parties about the reform of GCSEs. The final stages of this reform are still underway, and the government is explicit about its intention to make these qualifications “more academically demanding and knowledge-based”.
A key shift in policy is the move to measure schools’ performance or progress primarily on the basis of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), the achievement of pupils in English, maths, science, a language and history or geography – rather than English, maths and three other subjects, as has been measured previously.
What this shift appears to acknowledge by focusing on “academically demanding” subjects, is that grades at GCSE mean different things between different subjects. Not all GCSEs are directly comparable – and those which do not make it into the EBacc are understood to be absolutely “less demanding” as courses.
Certainly, this is backed up by research. In a working paper from 2006, Robert Coe of Durham University undertook a study of GCSE subjects using a statistical model developed by Georg Rasch, a Danish statistician of the mid-20th century who specialised in psychometry. It was a comparison of the likelihood for success in different GCSE examinations, based on a pupil’s ability. Coe’s findings are graphically represented below:
The general disparity between subjects is clear. But as Coe comments, one of the most striking things about this data is just how difficult Latin appears when compared to other subjects: it is about as difficult to get a grade C in Latin as it is to get a grade B in chemistry, or a grade A in sociology. One is further able to group subjects between those on the left-hand side of the median line – science, technology, maths and engineering subjects, languages and humanities – and those on the right-hand side, which are more vocational in character.
Degree of difficulty
It is important to remember that this is no reflection of any inherent easiness or difficulty in a subject: sociology would not exist as a degree or research specialism if one could not think about it on the same level as Latin or chemistry. What this data instead shows is that these GCSEs test different levels of skills, some of which may be more readily acquired in a lower number of contact hours and some of which take more time.
Pupil achievement appears to be measurable only in relation to the expectations for an individual exam, rather than across all GCSEs. As a result, these grade levels also reflect the typical profile of those taking these exams. In Latin, data from the Cambridge Schools Classics Project suggests that 97% of the candidates taking the examining body OCR’s Latin GCSE are in the top third of the national ability range. What this means is that a profile similar to the sociology GCSE would be useless for classing candidates.
What these profiles really reflect, however, are the groups one would have expected to take these subjects in the 1950s, the peak of grammar school education. Vocational subjects, which one might imagine transplanted back into secondary modern schools, could be taught with the expectations of 16-year-olds mastering skills at one level down from the average grammar school student, studying the subjects on the left-hand side of this chart.
While both grammar school pupils and secondary modern pupils would have studied maths, history and other subjects now on the EBacc, secondary modern pupils would typically not have learned Latin: the preserve of those at grammar or fee-paying schools. Those at the top of their sets in these schools, hoping to gain entry into Cambridge or Oxford, would be the ones for whom it was most important to be qualified in Latin, which was a requirement for entrance into both of these universities until 1959.
Quod erat demonstrandum
Today, in spite of this legacy, it can no longer be assumed that the average Latin learner is at the top of the ability range for their school. Since 2000, the numbers of schools offering Latin has increased dramatically, with reportedly 50,000 pupils starting to learn the language each year. For what must be the first time in Latin’s history in the UK, the majority of schools offering Latin right now are non-selective state institutions. Yet, despite this, the numbers of entrants into the OCR GCSE qualification have declined steadily since 2000. We have a situation where more and more young people are interested in Latin and the ancient world, but ever fewer have a qualification to show for it that will survive the current reforms.
Latin has long been defended as a difficult GCSE on the basis of the challenge it offers to the brightest 16-year-olds. But as long as qualifications matter, it should be a concern for us all that the middle-range of schoolchildren in this country are put into a situation whereby Latin is inaccessible to them if they want to achieve that “good” rating of A*-C on their CV and they don’t have the opportunity or time to join an after-school club.
If Latin continues to function as a badge of distinction for those at the very top – an A* more impressive than every other A* – then it is a subject that can never belong to everyone. It remains a tool for social elites, with resources of extra contact hours, study time and tutoring, to be classed on their own terms – to the detriment of those now interested in the subject who never had access to it at school before.
This is an edited version of a talk delivered by the author at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.