Off the Mark: Grade Inflation and the Essay Crisis

The term ‘Grade inflation is not isolated from the grasps of the media. Each year, debates surrounding student grades rock the education sector. However, the Covid pandemic has highlighted the inequalities that have arisen from online learning.  

The phrase has been criticised for its inaccuracies with some claiming it to be a political issue. Some claim that the grade has lost its value, yet this is not the case. Analysis by the BBC highlights regional inequalities that were caused by the Pandemic and teacher assessed grades. London saw a 47.9% A-A* grade in its students compared to that of the North East, which only saw 39.2%. This was also noticeable when comparing Private and State schools with a difference of 31.1% difference in students achieving A-A*. 

Using the phrase “level playing field” coined by George Burnham in 1872, it is clear that students across the country were disproportionately affected by the Pandemic. For critics of higher education, grade inflation is an easy method of discrediting the hard work of both students and teachers in exchange for political gain. 

So the question remains – What is grade inflation and what has caused it? 

Ultimately, the term refers to the upwards trend in which students are awarded higher grades than expected. Some say it is an “inevitability of the English system” whereby teachers have been given the impossible task of remaining unbiased. However, the problem lies deeper. 

The education policy of the 1980s under Thatcher saw a sharp turn towards the marketisation of the education system. This pits schools against each other as private businesses, competing for students and funding –  thus creating the desire for schools to achieve higher grades. For the international argument,  higher university grades offer the UK a sense of soft power that promotes the country as a hub for higher education. Inevitably, this creates avenues for education centres to gravitate towards higher average grades. The result of the Covid pandemic showing a 15% increase in the Russell group of 24 and a 5% increase in university admissions nationwide.  

External pressures from league tables also promote greater competition between universities and other higher education centres. But, these external influences run in parallel with other factors such as grading algorithms and teacher bias. 

With a new cohort of students joining universities, some claim that a rehaul of the grading system is a necessity to combat the ‘present threat of grade inflation.’ Prior to Covid, this threat was used to undermine student achievement. However, post covid, these discussions have become misinterpreted. 

First of all, the method in which students achieved their grades differ from previous years. For both university and higher education students, online learning offered a greater obstacle for students to achieve their desired grades. Finally, and most importantly, the disruption of education causing the students to battle an unfair grading algorithm should be celebrated. rather than neglected. 

Student success should be celebrated with 44.3% of students achieving A-A* grades nationwide. With these results in mind, it is likely students would be accepted into their universities- benefitting both the social and economic sectors of the country that were heavily damaged during the pandemic. The acceptance of students into courses such as medicine, law and others, would drive vital industry and human capital forward into a post-pandemic world. 

While students are preparing to leave for university this week, it is important to celebrate their work and support them on their way through university. Despite this, the marketisation of education, teacher bias, and external pressures such as league tables are all signs that grade inflation is an inevitability of the British education system. What is not clear, is the destructive moral panic created by grade inflation discourse that aims to target the hard work of teachers and students. Grade inflation is caused by the Government’s drive to marketise the education sector, and if the threat is as bad as it is perceived to be. What is needed is a discussion on how university assessments should be handled, rather than ridicule the students who work hard to achieve it. 

With a government unprepared to back students up mixed with degrees of uncertainty. It is clear that student mental health is important and the debates over grade inflation are miss-timed.

What is feared, is the discussion being driven in the wrong direction altogether. 

Header image credit: Medium