The Education Matters column with Dennis Richards

The widespread confusion about the new GCSE grading system featured heavily during the summer.
The widespread confusion about the new GCSE grading system featured heavily during the summer.

I cannot recall a summer when education stories have had such a high profile. A month ago, you could have argued that the top education story of the holidays was the rocketing pay of vice-chancellors or possibly whether hi-vis jackets on primary school trips are strictly necessary.

The widespread confusion about the new GCSE grading system also featured heavily.

Great fun was had with the fact that Grade 9 is the super-duper new top grade.

Older readers will remember that we’ve had a numbers system before.

In the old O Levels era, Grade 1 was the pinnacle.

All of which prompted a Mr Rae from Nottinghamshire to write to the Times to say that he no longer felt embarrassed about his O Level Maths Grade 9 achieved in 1971.

Apparently his grandchildren now think he’s a whizz at Maths.

More recently, the bombshell that Eton, and other prestigious independent schools, have been implicated in undermining the integrity of the public examination system has reached the newsstands.

This was closely followed by stories that St Olaves Grammar School in Bexley had expelled 16 students at the end of Year 12, not for disciplinary reasons, but simply for failing to reach B grades in their Lower Sixth exams.

Ouch. I would definitely have been out on my ear, and most of the rugby team with me.

Thankfully the usual stories were around.

Not that they were any more reassuring.

The continuing decline in the numbers being entered for foreign languages is now so familiar, many commentators ignored it.

The total number taking GCSE French fell by 10% this year and in German the drop was 13.2%.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser to the British Council, believes that “the continued decline in the overall uptake of languages in schools is worrying.

“This is not the direction we should be taking if the UK is to remain a globally facing nation in the years ahead”.

OK, so what are we doing about it?

Again older readers will find it interesting that the pattern of the O Level French Oral, which they may well have endured 40 years ago, will return in much the same format next year.

You know the kind of thing.

Describe what is happening in a picture and then move smoothly into a role-play.

Finish with some “general conversation” on a topic of interest.

It is a uniquely traumatic experience.

I have mentioned Darren and his French oral before.

The kind of pupil who makes you work hard just to find something which might vaguely stimulate some kind of response.

It always used to be sport; nowadays it is more likely to be some kind of computer game.

Since this was more than 40 years ago, and in Barnsley, a recently published novel had caused something of a sensation.

Barry Hines had written the story of 15 year old Billy Casper and his pet Kestrel.

Owning a pet bird became the fad of the day. Darren had a parrot.

As with Billy and his kestrel, the parrot was the love of Darren’s life.

I confess that I might have tipped him off that in the General Conversation part, I would ask him about his family and his parrot in that order.

A bit iffy, but hardly on the lines of the Eton scandal.

Anyway it backfired. Spectacularly. I switch on the obligatory tape. Once started, I am not allowed to stop it.

“Bonjour, Darren, ton frere, comment s’appelle-t- il?” A look of triumph on Darren’s face.

“Peaches”, he says, confidently. He is on a roll. The tape whirrs on unforgivingly.

Apparently, as well as his highly unorthodox name, his brother also has a big beak, green hair, swears a lot and sings in a high voice.

Darren got a Grade 9.

I can claim he’s a genius now.