who are grades for?

Grades have become so closely associated with education these days that is is quite easy to forget that they are – historically speaking – a relatively recent phenomenon.  They were unheard of in the days of Socrates, and would have seemed alien to Comenius.

Unbelievable as it may sound, we didn’t always bother with grades while going about the task of educating and becoming educated.

This being so, it is natural to ask the question “what are grades for?”

If you search the internet using this question as a search term you find at least 37,000 hits, and the hits generated are interesting reading for those of us working in education.

I suspect, however, that these answers are not really important for the simple reason that they are answering the wrong question.

We shouldn’t be asking what grades are for; we should instead be asking who grades are for?

To answer this question is to explore other questions nested within it with far-reaching social and political implications:

  • Whose interests were served by the invention and employment of grades in the first place?
  • Whose interests are served by the current dominant position held by grades within measures of education?
  • Whose interests will be served by the continued and intensified focus on grades which seems likely to be the case in the future?

To approach an answer to these questions, we need to dig back into the past.

Grades, Industry and Freedom to Blame

The rise of grades and grading is very much a 19th century phenomenon, regardless of the fact that (according to Wikipedia, at least) the first recorded instances of grading practices emerged either in 1785 (at Yale) or 1792 (at Cambridge).

This suggestion should come as no surprise on reflection: with the rapid industrialization of society came a demand for large numbers of appropriately educated and skilled workers, and as a result industrial methods and models began to change the way that education occurred.

Coupled with this was, from a UK perspective, the need across the British Empire for an ever expanding clerical and administrative class. The obvious success of industrial models in manufacturing will have seemed equally attractive to those in power as ways of managing as complex and large a manufacturing complex as the Empire.

Thus, metaphors of quality shifted away from the artisanal and towards the industrial and administrative; we stopped talking of shaping young minds and began to speak of course delivery instead.

All this expansion must have presented those looking to recruit workers in either industry or the lower to middle civil services with the problem of how to ensure that from such a rapidly growing pool of talent they could be sure of selecting an adequately educated worker with as little cost in effort to the organisation as possible.

A simple, quantified indicator, stripped down and – superficially, at least – applicable over time and between contexts must have seemed not only attractive, but natural, in the spirit of “what gets measured, gets managed.”

From this need, I suggest, the grade was born.

Whose grade are we making when we “make the grade”?

The people whose interests were being served by the advent of grades, then, were employers of a very particular type: employers of large scale workforces, employers who almost certainly had little time actually to screen their potential employees themselves, and who would have less and less time for this task as time went on; employers who would begin to delegate this recruitment task to others; employers who would, over time, lose not only a direct knowledge of the people whom they employed, but also a direct responsibility for the selection of their talent.

What do I mean by this? The invention of grades allowed for the first time an employee to be deemed fit for performing certain tasks (of for being trained to perform them) on a basis other than direct inspection of their talent by the potential employer themselves. Further, and most significantly, their skill level relative to others could be estimated (higher grade, higher supposed skill).

Before grades existed, if an employer wanted to ascertain whether a potential worker would fit the bill, or how good they were, the employee had to be selected on the basis of what the employer could themselves see that the potential worker could do.

After grading systems were introduced, the employer was freed of this necessity; they could assume that if a worker had been awarded grade X by institution Y for subject or competence Z, then there was every reason to believe that the worker was at least capable of that.

Employers could begin to take such matters increasingly on trust.

In this delegation of inspection and qualitative judgement to others, employers were tacitly being freed – in part, at least – of their personal responsibility for selecting the right talent for their own organisations.

This point is so significant that it cannot be overstated. As soon as grades became a widespread element of the education/employment dynamic, employers held a radically different and more powerful position.

It suddenly became much easier to blame not oneself for selecting employees poorly, but to blame the educational institutions who were managing the grading of potential employees.

Ultimately, it became much easier to blame education itself.

By leveraging this freedom to blame education for inadequacy in servicing industry with a workforce reliably and adequately qualified for its needs, it also became easier to exert pressure on education to change its principles and practices in order to meet these needs.

“Meet the new boss…”

We can see this both historically and today in criticism of educational standards and priorities by industrial thinktanks, business leaders and – through their lobbying power – politicians.

During the 80s and 90s in the UK, for example, there was pressure from industry to produce (sic) students who were better qualified to work within the perceived future employment markets; this led to a boom in so-called vocational trainng and education, and to the creation of courses such as BTEC, CPVE and others. These were not new grading approaches (they were new qualifications), but their development was a logical consequence of the existence of grades and grading once we view these as part of the history of the industrialization of education.

So what I am arguing is that taken historically, grades were for employers in the industrial model; they served the interests of those who required large numbers of directly (albeit superficially) comparable people from which to draw a workforce.

Grades in this sense were never for the students themselves, except in the impoverished sense of enabling them to participate in this dehumanized model of employment selection.

Plus ça change…

So much for history. We are no longer living in the 19th Century – who are grades for now? Whose interests are being served by grades these days?

Simple. The same people.

This point is so obvious and uncontroversial as not to require further expansion. However, in case proof of this idea were needed, let’s look at the grading system I am most familiar with, and one which I also addressed in my last post: the grading system for the Cambridge English Celta.

Upon successful completion of this qualification, a new teacher may be awarded one of three pass-level grades: PASS, PASS B or PASS A.

The Cambridge English basic descriptors for these grades are:

They will continue to need guidance to help them to develop and broaden their range of skills as teachers in post.

Pass (Grade B) They will continue to need some guidance to help them to develop and broaden their range of skills as teachers in post.

Pass (Grade A)
They will benefit from further guidance in post but will be able to work independently.

(Source: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/21816-celta-syllbus.pdf accessed on 15.08.14, 16:45hrs CET)

What should be immediately obvious is the focus on the degree of support a teacher would require from their employer in order to function as an employee.

A PASS teacher is defined as one who needs significantly more time and effort from their employer in order to do the job for which they have been employed; a PASS A teacher is, on the other hand, “low-to-no-maintainance”.

This can naturally be interpreted in the teachers’ interests: it tells an employer clearly how much support to give a new teacher; it helps ensure that they get the support they need – this must be a good thing.

Except it doesn’t work that way round in reality. These grades say one thing to employers and one thing only: PASS A applicants cost the organization less effort and are therefore more desirable.

This has little to nothing to do with the interests of the teacher labelled with the grade or the students whom they may be given to teach; it has everything to do with employers being able to make simple and quick choices on employees on the basis of minimal investment and maintenance cost.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the youth of today…”

To prove this interpretation, and to see the earlier claim that grades lead to abdication of employer responsibility in action, one only needs to follow discussions relating to Celta grades and graduate quality on blogs and discussion forums online.

Employers often make the claim that they are most interested in recruiting PASS A or PASS B candidates. However this is presented as a commitment to providing the best service to their clients, in ignoring the reality that this section of the total talent pool amounts to less than 30% of the total annual graduate pool (on average 3% worldwide finish Celta with an A, 25% with a B) means that up to 70% of all teachers qualifying each year are being tacitly dismissed.

In whose interests is such an employment policy? And what responses to such a position are likely? Grade inflation is one obvious example.

Another claim regularly made is a variation on the old chestnut “they don’t make ’em like they used to”.  It is fashionable to criticize new graduates of short initial teacher training programmes like Celta for lacking detailed and comprehensive technical understanding of the grammatical system of English. If this criticism could be substantiated, it would appear to be a reasonable one – until you realise that this is not an aim of the course, and nor, considering its level and scope, could it ever be. Criticising a course for not achieving something that it does not set out to achieve is not to criticize it meaningfully at all, but to dismiss it.

Yet by making these demands for a course to deliver (there’s that word again) a product (ditto) suitable for the industry, there is nevertheless pressure on educators to reset their priorities – not because this is educationally sound, but simply because it is commercially demanded.

So here we have an example of employers applying pressure on course providers to stop what they are doing (and, I would say, doing well) to focus on doing something that employers want them to do.


My point, I suppose, is this: grades and grading systems serve the interests of a very specific group of people, and that they have always done so. Grades are for employers, in order to make their business activity as it relates to recruitment as cost-effective as possible. That this is neither a valid educational rationale for grades nor a moral one appears to me to be self-evident and disturbing.

If you have followed my argument this far, you might like to think about the following question, which occurs to me: what alternative to grading would serve the interests of those people who are currently being graded for the sake of someone else?

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