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Review: Cheats, Choices and Dumbing Down by Jerry Jarvis

Given that we’re in the middle of the annual GCSE and A-Level results period, and especially given the recent debates on reform of the exam system, I thought this was a particularly apt choice for this week’s book review.

Jerry Jarvis was formerly the managing director of the Edexcel exam board, until he very publicly quit in 2009 over concerns about the grade calibration of A-Levels in particular. In this book, he explains in some detail his reasons for leaving, muses on the state of the system as is, and gives suggestions to pupils and parents considering their educational choices.

It was actually quite a good book. It was certainly less dry than the subject matter might suggest, though it was rather short: it read more like an extended briefing paper than a short book.

There was nothing that struck me as especially ground-breaking in here, but as someone who sat their A-Levels within the last decade, perhaps that’s unsurprising. I think it would be revealing to those who are less well versed in England’s examination system.

Jarvis gives a spirited defence of the exam system, and explains why grade inflation doesn’t indicate declining standards: in fact, he makes the point that we should really expected greater grade inflation than we actually have, which perhaps hides the fact that standards in schools are not improving at the rate one might expect from the level of investment. He bemoans schools’ lack of action over poorly performing teachers, and their lack of engagement with the detailed feedback data that is provided. This was a little eye-opening: I hadn’t realised that teachers had access to such detailed breakdown on their pupils’ performance, so as to enable them to target specific areas of their teaching practice for improvement.

There were a couple of decently amusing anecdotes, like the time he was tasked with estimating how much each individual pupil’s performance had been affected by the escape of a pet frog during an exam sitting, and these did add a little levity to the book.

I suspect that student and parents of students actively sitting GCSEs or A-Levels, or making choices about what to study, would have a much more active interest in this book than I. But, having said that, as a general reader I found it really quite interesting, and given it’s brevity, most people will probably find it a worthwhile read.

Cheats, Choices and Dumbing Down is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

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