The unofficial exam results phrase book

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

Image caption,
A Scottish example of the traditional post-exam levitation photograph

The exam results season has its own rituals and its own language. Here are some hardy perennials among the phrases likely to be heard and some of their meanings.

1) Dumbing down. This has become part of the education lexicon, particularly during the exam season, functioning as a shorthand for a whole set of beliefs that standards are tumbling. But its origins are not really from education at all. It's from disgruntled screenwriters in 1930s Hollywood who were told to make their movie scripts accessible to the lowest IQs in the cinema. These writers didn't appreciate being told to "dumb down" their masterpieces for a wider audience.

2) Grade inflation. A relative whippersnapper, this phrase appeared in US higher education from the mid-1970s, when other types of inflation were big news. It was used in the title of an academic paper in 1975 and subsequent studies looked at the relentless upward trend in grades. It captures the idea of an artificial increase. But schools might see the phrase as a Catch-22 trap. If pupils work hard and get better results, they are accused of grade inflation. If the results go down no-one tells them it's a positive example of grade deflation.

3) Fiasco. The word "fiasco" spends most of the year slumbering undisturbed, but come the exam results and it's everywhere. Put the phrase "exam fiasco" into Google and there are 25,000 answers, the two words inseparably linked. It's like a problem, but with more sinister Latin overtones. But where does it come from? Fiasco derives from a Venetian glass-making word for a flask. If someone was making a complicated glass that went wrong it could be recycled into a plain flask, the result of this failure was a fiasco.

4) Mickey Mouse qualifications. Imagine a visitor landing at Heathrow airport and picking up a newspaper with the baffling headline "4,500 Mickey Mouse courses facing the axe". What did the mouse do wrong? Why were there so many people studying him? It seems uncertain exactly when this phrase entered the UK's public debate on education standard, but somewhere in the late 1990s, the famous mouse became synonymous with dodgy courses. There had been Mickey Mouse watches, now there were Mickey Mouse subjects. And it's more than likely that at some point in the exam season a pundit will attack these feral creatures living in the skirting boards of the education system.

5) "Going back to a 19th Century education system." The word "Gradgrind" might also be included in such accusations, adding a further flavour of Dickensian classroom misery. Victorian costume drama nostalgia doesn't really extend to education, where there were such traditions as illiteracy and child labour. But for those children who were taking exams, how different were they?

Cambridge began offering school exams in 1858 and the first subjects were English language and literature, history, geography, geology, Greek, Latin, French, German, physical sciences, political economy and English law, zoology, mathematics, chemistry, arithmetic, drawing, music and religious knowledge. Strangely familiar perhaps?

6) Teaching to the test. This exam season phrase, the education equivalent of the tail wagging the dog, describes the idea that all the teaching effort is focused on the narrow confines of passing a specific exam, rather than providing a broad and deep knowledge of a subject. It's like a music student memorising one tune rather than being able to play an instrument.

During the exam season it's often linked to the pressures of league tables. But look at this observation by examiners about over-coached, under-imaginative pupils: "Their answers, even when accurate, showed a general uniformity of expression which seemed to imply that meagre handbooks had been placed before the students to be 'got up' and that little attempt had been made by their instructors to excite the interest of their pupils by questionings or remarks of their own." It's from the 1850s.

7) Traditional. While "old fashioned" is bad, "traditional" is good. Traditional isn't really very specific but gives everyone a kind of well-upholstered, wood-panelled sense of well-being. In terms of exams it's often used to conjure up badges, blazers and lots of facts. It can also be used alongside "rigour". But back to the Victorians. What did they actually have to answer? Here are three questions from Cambridge's public exams in the 1850s: "Obtain the sum of 46 times 7,020, 17 times 1,000,001, and 33 times 33;" "Name in order the queens and the children of Henry VIII. On what grounds was he divorced from his first wife?" and "In what three ways was our Lord tempted in the wilderness?"

8) Spoon-feeding: Look it up yourself.

9) Norm Referencing. This might sound like a handy Australian golfer from the 1970s, but it describes why it is difficult to compare the results of the current GCSE exams with the old O-levels. The previous exams used the norm referencing system, which meant that regardless of how well or badly a year group performed, there would be limits on how many achieved each grade. It rationed the number getting good O-levels and acted as a valve limiting the flow of youngsters going on to A-levels and then university. GCSEs were designed to allow more people to progress if they reached a set level of achievement.

10) The global race. No education change or announcement is now complete without a reference to international competition, benchmarking schools against their global economic rivals. Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea are the usual suspects. The idea of education being a race is deep rooted. The origin of the word curriculum is related to running, a course of action, a race and even a racecourse. Just don't use the word loser.