Opinion: Misinformed populists spoil the exam results debate

It’s that time of year again. (Former) sixth form students walk up to the school gates together for the last time to find out exactly how well they have done in the tedium that is the AS/A-Level examination system, prefaced by the usual yearly whinges from armchair-idiots rubbishing the entire system and associating any positive correlation with “exams getting easier” and any negative correlations with “young people getting thicker”.

I was the first year to take the AS level. “Ah, that system seems so much easier!”, the armchair-idiots chirped. This assumption was based on the one pro the system offered – the option to pay to retake a module, with the best mark being retained as the final one. Fantastic. Except the unfortunate fact that we couldn’t spend two years dossing anymore before a month of cramming, and found our first important FE examinations merely four months into starting sixth form. It was frustrating to hear people who hadn’t taken the exams we had (or even fully understood them) to pass them off as a walk in the park, and it’s something that certainly hasn’t gone away.

The whole fallacy, however, is that apparently the exams aren’t worthwhile. If they’re not worthwhile, how can they give an indication as to how well the students are doing? The automatic armchair-idiot assumption is that as the exams are easy, all the students must be stupid. This is an affront not only to a fair judgement of the intellectual capabilities of young people, but also to Boolean logic (let’s see an O-Level student tell me what that means). The exams may not be perfect, or even adequate, but they are not a reflection of the education that teachers provide students with in the meantime. Yes, the assessment objectives need to be adhered too, and teachers rightly complain that they take time and effort away from actually educating the students; but there is still no indication that these pupils are leaving school any less prepared for the workplace than they were 20 years ago.

I have strange pet-hates. One of which is people who cannot distinguish between their/there/they’re. This, I believe, is a basic linguistic construct that should have been grasped in primary education, yet I see adults of all ages, particularly those who would have been in the O-Level period showing that they simply cannot distinguish between the three. How about to/too/two? For all the gyp youngsters get for replacing it with “2” in txt-spk, it’s surprising how many adults do not know the correct scenarios by which the different instances must be used. This is not a product of the new A/AS Level system, it is a consequence of years of irrelevant examinations that serve as memory tests – more so than they do as a proper assessment of a student’s ability to employ the skills and knowledge they have acquired over two years of further education. Don’t even get me started on people who can’t use the apostrophe.

So congratulations to all the A/AS-Level students who pick up their results today. If any of you are faced with the usual barrage of idiots that like picking their educated argumentative points from the front page of the Daily Mail, realise the shear hypocrisy: the system they call broken has been designed, implemented and maintained by the people who apparently went to school when exams were harder and education wasn’t broken. If they think your assessments are a waste of time, it says a hell of a lot more about them than it does about you.

Chris Ward is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Guildford.

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  • Andrew Suffield 20th Aug '09 - 10:36am

    Nice rant, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish.

  • Correct, but the “bad English” part is spoiled by using the “shear” rather than “sheer” before the word hypocrisy.

    Note – left school with A-levels in 2003.

  • Herbert Brown 20th Aug '09 - 10:46am


    Is anyone really prepared to argue that the increase in the percentage of A grades from 11.7% in 1992 to 26.7% in 2009 reflects a genuine improvement in the performance of students – particularly given the concurrent growth in the number of candidates?

  • Alan Belmore 20th Aug '09 - 10:51am

    This is an excellent article Chris – I’d like to see some of the Daily Mail columnists siting modern A-Levels…

  • @Andrew – I just want to be a voice on the other side of the debate. I would like to think that, as a governor of a school, my opinions are slightly more informed than people who derive theirs from the Daily Mail.

    @Rich – I actually fine-combed this article knowing that somebody would find a spelling mistake somewhere. Well done you. 😛

    @Herbert – I made it quite clear that the FE system is far from perfect, but the flaws in the system should not provoke an automatic assumption that student performance has decreased. I’m arguing that the system is not sufficient enough to measure it, but that does not necessarily mean that these students have not been educated. They do learn more at school than simply how to pass exams.

  • There was a girl on Radio 5 with 4 A grades who said that when it came to the exam she only needed to get a C/D in the actual exam to get her As.

    From memory (and it was a long time ago!) My A levels were predominantly exam based (Physics was all exam or exam condition practicals, Geography had a project and I think Biology was all exam based) – we certainly didn’t know any grades before sitting the exam. My predominantly exam based results were B/C/E so what does that say about the comparison?

  • @Hywel – I would have preferred that system, because quite simply I found it easier. After two years you’ve done the work and preparation and should be ready. Personally I hated the modular assessment system because the heat was constantly on. Maybe that’s just an individual preference.

    At university we had a girl in my year who was in a similar situation to your example. That’s because she did absolutely nothing but work through her modules – I never recall seeing her in the bar and she was relentlessly in front of her desk constantly. Those people exist, and they don’t reflect a general trend amongst A-Level students.

  • Hywel – now, you get the breakdown by module of AS results prior to getting A levels sop you can have a rough idea pre-exam, but nothing exact. Also, the school has to “cash-in” to get a result when the subject is finished. If not, students will receive module marks, but no actual grades and until a result is cashed in they cannot get grades. This has to be done months in advance, when entries are made.

    In short, if someone finds out they haven’t been cashed in today, they will get marks, but no grade and won’t get one for weeks and exam boards can’t confirm a grade based solely on marks alone.

  • My point was though that in “my” A levels a much great proportion was riding on the 1-2 3 hour exams in the summer of the second year.

    Based on my University performance 20 years later (so not much of a comparison!) a more coursework based approach would have helped me do better. My Uni coursework marks were consistently 10-15% higher than exams

  • I never sat A Levels, I left school and did vocational qualifications. HNC/HND etc, so I do not know if exams are getting any easier or not.

    What I do know, having recruited people, is that young people I have interviewed, spoken to and seen their CV’s are less articulate, less able to write and less intelligent than, say, 10 years ago but have better qualifications. I appreciate that is anecdotal but it is the experience of quite a few in HR I talk to and quite a few in industry so there is a disconnect in the ever improving “performance” of people in exams at all levels and the experience of recruiters and employers. What is it then ? I am interested.

    Oh, BTW, suggest you moderate the tone of future posts labelling people idiots and acting all macho. You come over as a real dickhead.


  • @Meandyew

    I think we can all agree that FE has become that strange stage between school and university. Attempts at making the qualifications vocational have failed miserably in the past and it’s something we really need to concentrate on fixing.

    I can’t remember the last time I was ever accused of “acting all macho”, in fact I don’t think that’s an allegation I’ve ever been charged with….


  • Yep, when I think Chris Ward I think “boy! is he ever a stereotypically macho male!” 😛

  • Herbert Brown 20th Aug '09 - 12:41pm


    ” I made it quite clear that the FE system is far from perfect, but the flaws in the system should not provoke an automatic assumption that student performance has decreased.”

    There are two issues here – whether exams have got easier and whether the performance of students has improved or got worse.

    What I’m saying is that I find it very difficult to believe that the huge improvement in exam results reflects a genuine improvement in the performance of students. That’s why I asked whether anyone was prepared to argue that it did. If not, it seems safe to assume that exams have got easier.

    If that’s the case, I don’t think we can sensibly say anything about how the performance of students has changed. All we can do is listen to anecdotal evidence and speculate.

  • Interesting article Chris, one point though. I sat A Levels in 95-97, and two of the four were in modular form then, allowing you to resit bad ones and have the best mark counted, so not sure the new AS system you did was much different from a previous system, unless you’re much older than i thought!

    Think there were probably quirks in my day though, as on results day i found I’d passed an AS level I’d never consciously sat too, as a result of sitting one of the A Levels. Odd.

    As for whether they’re getting easier or not, i have no idea, other than we were berated for their increasing easyness even in my day, and they certainly weren’t easy. I suspect the results coming out when many journo’s are only holiday might have something to do with it. Why find someone to write new copy when you can just dust off last year’s time and again?

  • Chris, I judged you on your words and posturing and not your awful David Tennant Dr Who type of hair do !!!

  • Your argument is wrong. It’s quite logical to believe “the exams are easy” and not “all the students must be stupid”. In fact, if both those things were the case, then there would be no problem! The real problem is easy exams plus students who are becoming more intelligent. The A grade in particular is devalued when 26% of students get one, because it no longer acts as a signal of excellence. So universities are obliged to use other measures to choose students – measures which will generally advantage private schools over state schools – not a situation a Liberal or a Democrat would want to endorse.

    So my problem is that your efforts as students are not being acknowledged when grade inflation distorts the signal of quality that grades should convey. Two possible solutions:
    1. Return to grading on a curve, where a fixed proportion of students get A, B, etc. each year.
    2. Create new sub-grades as in the Irish examination system, where students receive A1-2, B1-3, C1-3, etc.

  • I should clarify that my knowledge of point 2 comes from my country of residence as a piece of advice to the UK – so when I say “your efforts as students” I’m not alleging that you here are sixth-formers!

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Aug '09 - 1:37pm

    Here we go again, stupid binary thinking.

    Chris is assuming there are only two positions:

    1) Exams are as hard as they ever were, a grade in a particular subject means exactly the same in terms of ability of the student as the same grade in the same subject taken 30 years ago.

    2) Exams now are so easy, anyone could pass them, they require no effort or intelligence whatsoever.

    So, according to Chris, anyone who denies one of these positions is automatically 100% in support of the other.

    This is rather like the silliness over the NHS, in which there was so much rubbishy argument on the lines that there were only two possible positions:

    1) The one adopted by Republican opponents of Obama’s Health Care reforms and supported by Daniel Hannan MEP – the NHS is evil socialism, which offers really bad value for money, and leaves anyone who falls outside certain bonds with no alternative but to die.

    2) The NHS is wonderful, extremely efficient, nothing whatsoever could be done to improve it.

    It seemed to me the madness was mainly those who adopted position 1 assuming anyone who criticised them for going OTT must be from position 2.

    Now, if we could get over this binary mindset and accept just because someone has reason to suggest A-level standards are slipping it doesn’t mean they are saying all students taking A-levels now are lazy and useless and did no work whatsoever to pass them, we might be able to have a useful debate on the issue.

    One point we might note is that some years ago, a mid-point examination, the AS level, was introduced. Every A-level student takes this examination. A student who fails it need not continue with the A-level, and can instead pick another A-level and study it to this mid-point exam. It ought to be rather obvious that this will have a dramatic effect on failure rates for the final A-level. When students had no choice but to carry on for two years and take the final exams, of course some of them only found out at that point that they weren’t up to the subject and failed. But allow a mid-point drop-out, and of course they could discover then the subject wasn’t right for them, drop out, do something else, and so OF COURSE the failure rate for the final exam drops – those who would have failed in the past never reach that point.

    The other point is that there is a fair amount of hard evidence that students with an A-level grade in a subject can’t perform tasks that students with the same grade in the same subject could decades ago. This backs up the feeling which I find held by most university lecturers, that standards are dropping. We do need to be careful about “golden age” feelings, so this is something that needs to be backed by evidence before it can be properly asserted, and we need to be quite sure that what has been lost hasn’t just been balanced by new things gained. But silliness like Chris Ward’s evidence-less and illogical comments do not help get to the root of this.

  • On the grade inflation point.

    Out of interest I looked up the entry standards for the degree I was accepted on at 18 (Biology, Lancaster) with a BCE at A level (I think from memory the offer was CCC). They now want BBB.

  • @Matthew, where did I suggest this was simply a binary issue? I wasn’t tackling the FE system head-on, I was tackling the populist view of the system from those who choose to rubbish the achievements of students without fully understanding how the system works (as was said in the title of the article). The argument over what is broken in FE is much more complex than that and I wouldn’t dare to suggest that the entire scenario is merely based on two contrasting extremes. I was attacking the populism, nothing else.

  • @sanbikinoraion That truly is a fail, although I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t in the original document I sent out. I’ll take a look when I get back home… and for the record I did both, then became an engineer. 😉

  • Raymond Terrific 20th Aug '09 - 4:07pm


    As a teacher I can assure you that A levels are much easier today than they were 20 years ago and GCSEs even more so. A simple comparison can be done by comparing questions on a similar topic in papers from 1988 and 2008. There is no argument, only from people who wish to believe it were otherwise.

    Basic numeracy and literacy have also suffered, to the extent that I can now see the evidence in fellow teachers entering the profession.

  • I did my A Levels back in 2002 and dumbing down was in evidence then. Over 90% of people in my history class got an A which shocked the tutor as there was a wide range of abilities. I also got 100% in 2 economics tests even though I know I got a diagram wrong.

  • Rich Wilson 20th Aug '09 - 4:40pm

    Millian: “So universities are obliged to use other measures to choose students – measures which will generally advantage private schools over state schools – not a situation a Liberal or a Democrat would want to endorse.”

    But the fact is that private schools are able to offer better wages than the state and provide better teaching. They’re also able to fund more extra-curricular activities. Given equal grades, universities will always choose those educated privately because their education is likely to be more well rounded and extensive.

  • Questioning exam standards is perfectly legitimate and is in no way an attack on the kids who happened to sit them this year, but it’s probably inevitable that the less mature among them will take it all personally anyway and feel a need to lash out somehow, for example by writing an intemperate blog.

  • Herbert Brown 20th Aug '09 - 5:45pm

    “Basic numeracy and literacy have also suffered, to the extent that I can now see the evidence in fellow teachers entering the profession.”

    Maybe not only those just entering the profession!

    I was amused to see the following comments from leading educationalists in a newspaper report:

    “Mr Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The standard of those exams will be more difficult.

    “The A-level next year is [sic] very different to [sic] the A-level this year.”

    Greg Watson, head of the OCR exam board, said: “The questions will be more analytical. There’s [sic] also more synoptic questions. We are told that these sort [sic] of exams will be more difficult next year. “


  • From todays Channel Four Factcheck:
    “Academic research shows that someone with the same general ability level would now be expected to score around two A-level grades higher than they did 20 years ago.*
    This seems pretty damning, although it doesn’t necessarily mean the paper is “easier”. Changes in the system such as the introduction of modular exams have made it more likely that students will be able to gain an A-level pass.
    The pattern may change next year, at least at the top grades, when a new A* grade is introduced.”

    (*Note to people in receipt of my job applications, this makes my grades the equivalent of AAC)

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Aug '09 - 7:03pm

    @Matthew, where did I suggest this was simply a binary issue? I wasn’t tackling the FE system head-on, I was tackling the populist view of the system from those who choose to rubbish the achievements of students without fully understanding how the system works (as was said in the title of the article).

    Your article came across as suggesting anyone who criticised A-levels was an “armchair idiot” who read and believed the Daily Mail. Essentially, you seemed to want to shut down the debate by insulting in this way anyone who has a viewpoint other than “A-levels and the students who take them are wonderful”.

    If that wasn’t your intention, you should have been a little more careful about throwing your insults. To be honest, as someone who does believe A-level standards are falling (from a position of professional experience), I felt your article to be a nasty and untrue attack on me and others in my position.

  • Martin Land 20th Aug '09 - 7:48pm

    Hywel, that gives me some (non-existent) A** grades!

    I confess I took my A Levels in the days when only a small percentage of people went to university and when everyone says they were much harder. Actually, now with my hat on as a Teacher (I qualified two years ago though I tutor more than I teach) I would say the exams are so different as to make comparisons very difficult. I was tutoring a couple of students in History this year, a couple in Spanish and a couple in French. I did the first subject at A level myself, but not the other two.

    As far as History is concerned, there is no question that the very narrow focus of the curriculum has three main consequences:

    1. As the curriculum changes slowly, teachers have simply got better at getting students through. The slow pace of change and the narrow focus accounts, in my opinion for a large part of the grade ‘inflation’.
    2. Students today study at A2 in a manner closer to undergraduate study than in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
    3. On the other hand, their general knowledge of History is now very poor. Tutoring students through the Stalin era to find that they didn’t know there had been an earlier 1905 revolution is depressing.

    Languages. Difficult to compare standards between languages, but I always feel that Spanish A level standards are not as high as French ones. However, a grade B or C is good enough in either for a solid start at undergraduate level.

  • “Shut up amd stop devaluing my education from your armchairs.”

    But it is a legitimate issue for mature applicants to positions where A levels grades are used as a comparator.

    “There are more and better extra-curricular materials for revision purposes.”

    This is undoubtedly true. One reason why I did better at University more recently was I studied “how to revise and pass exams” as well as the substantive subject. However when I was at school taking A levels it was sort of assumed that we knew how to do this.

  • Herbert Brown 21st Aug '09 - 12:01am


    The question is whether you actually have any evidence about what caused the percentage of A grades to increase by a factor of more than 2 since the early 1990s – over a period when the proportion of the population taking A levels also increased.

    Obviously you’d prefer to believe that it reflects a genuine improvement in performance. But do you have any real evidence that this is the case?

  • Look, things are obviously easier since 30 years ago. We dumped norm referencing- with that, a whole lot less people would be getting A’s because, well, it was norm referenced! The opportunity to take resits, and to drop one out of 4 subjects, does make things easier. You may have found it required more work or not, but it does result in higher grades at the end.

    The fact that they result in higher grades doesn’t mean those changes are bad; I think they are mostly not. However, I have gotten full marks in english exams without reading the book. I’ve looked at syllabi for maths and futher maths before and after the recent restructure and its significantly easier now.

    The fact is, the only reason to have an exam that gives grades is so that potential destinations for those exam takers can assess their achievements against each other. Education for its own sake is worth defending, but exams for their own sake our not; more A grades does mean that for employment and universities an A grade is less valuable.

    Saying exams are easier isn’t the same as saying students are stupider. Indeed, the only reason to want to make them harder is because they are so clearly capable of doing harder exams! A few bruised egos can’t stand in the way of the fact that the current distribution of grades being produced is not serving its intended purpose. Either the exam marking system must change, or someone needs to propose a radical alternative way of doing admissions; the status quo is serving nobody.

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Aug '09 - 9:52am

    Two observations:

    The pool of students taking A-levels is not the same as it was 20 years ago; the economic and social biases have changed. Direct comparisons of results are therefore invalid.

    Teaching is now more precisely focussed on the specific things which will be tested in the exam papers. This is expected to show a higher level of achievement on those things and a lower level on things which are not on the syllabus.

    How many of the observations in this thread can be explained in terms or one or both of these? Looks like most of them to me.

  • “Obviously you’d prefer to believe that it reflects a genuine improvement in performance. But do you have any real evidence that this is the case?”

    Ah, evidence, that would be nice. What ever Huw has been learning during his sparkling education providing evidence to back up an assertion seems to have been missed off the syllabus.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '09 - 10:11am

    I don’t know very much about History teaching, but Martin’s point about the narrow focus and teachers getting better at pushing students through the exams hints at what the problem might be, and fits in with my experience with students coming through on other A-levels.

    The problem those of us taking on A-level students find is that we glance at the syllabus of the A-level, it seems fine, we get students with good grades in it, and then we are surprised at how little knowledge and ability they have with the subject.

    Now, we are looking at general skills and ability in the subject, not the specific syllabus – and there’s an issue. As Martin suggests, the education has been too narrow, based on just those aspects which will “come up” on the exam. It hasn’t engendered a more general love of the subject and skills and interests which aren’t directly related to that syllabus. Furthermore, the skills of the teacher in getting the students through the exam often involve “exam technique”, which essentially means tricking the examiner – trying to find little ways in which the student can get good marks without really having a deep understanding of the subject. So this really means students are being taught not to learn, taught to think of this all as just a game, taught to think of education as passing exams not having general skills and knowledge.

    We who are taking on these A-level students aren’t looking just for narrow exam-passing skills, we are looking for what passing the exam ought to be about, a measure of more general skills and knowledge in the subject. So when we get to see how these students are by making them do things which are to do with the subject but not with passing the A-level exam with its set syllabus on the subject, we find they lack what we thought the exam ought to be testing.

    More exam-focused teaching ISN’T better teaching at a deeper level, but of course it is at a shallower level as it gets the students the grades. The older style, where students were taught the subject not the exam syllabus, was better education at a deeper level, the idea being that if they had a general knowledge and love of the subject, the exam shouldn’t phase them too much and they should do OK on it. Exams were a bit more general then in any case. Also there wasn’t quite such a big competition for the top grades, if you got a B or C you still could get into most of the degrees going. So the bit of randomness in grades this entailed wasn’t such a big issue.

    The narrow focus in the syllabus, and the exams which encourage “exam technique”, are in the name of “fairness”. If you have a fairly general exam, with an open marking scheme which leaves a lot up to the human judgement of the marker, you can better test real knowledge and skills. You can see it when you see it as an examiner, you can reward that flair and insight when a student does something unexpected and clever. We are now told, however, that relying on human judgement and vague marking schemes are unfair, and could lead to hidden prejudice. So instead we have to have much more focused questions, with a very detailed marking scheme which lays out exactly where each mark comes from, and steps which lead you carefully through each stage of the question so that no-one is unfairly treated by missing the point. The consequence is there is no scope for marking the unexpected or brilliant, there is nowhere where the clever student can take off using his or her own knowledge or skills with little in the way of guidelines, that skill in taking something general and breaking it down into steps is lost, because the question, in the name of fairness, does that breaking down for you. No wonder a grade A now feels like what a grade C used to feel like, because it can be gained by what used to be regarded as grade C level performance – thorough knowledge of the syllabus, but no real flair shown, methodical plodding sticking to what he or she was told, falls down when asked something which exercises the more general skills and knowledge of the subject but wasn’t directly on the syllabus.

    If the exam is all predictable stuff coming directly from the syllabus, it turns it more into a memory test than it ought to be. Chris in his original article talks of “years of irrelevant examinations that serve as memory tests”. No exam should be a memory test, any exam that is short-changes the student. It can be a test of skills, because skills have to be practiced, not memorised, and they get better with practice and an exam is a useful test if they allow that to be demonstrated. An exam can be a test of ability to apply knowledge, that is to put it and use it in context, perhaps in an unexpected situation, or one where you have to work out for yourself what knowledge it is that you are supposed to use. Any exam which is a memory test is not just useless, it is WORSE than useless. It gives to the student and to the person who naively supposes the exam result means something an entirely false picture of his or her real ability and knowledge. It encourages the sort of “game” attitude in which the facts being memorised are treated as just abstract symbols, no linkage is made between therm and anything wider than the exam. It leads the student to confuse memorisation with real learning, which can have tragic consequences – the student has never really learnt to learn properly, has actively been discouraged from that, has take on what he or she thinks are good learning techniques but they drag him or her down when used at higher level. In my experience, the confusion of memorisation with learning is the second biggest cause of failure in university degrees (laziness is the first, lack of intelligence is way down as a cause).

    Now this is what we see at university – all lecturers complain about it. Students whose ability and interest has been wrecked by the memorisation and exam technique approach to education. How fed up we get with students who are endlessly pestering us with “will it come up in the exam?” and “how many marks do I get for that?” and spend far more effort on trying to get round passing without really learning than they do an actual learning.

    In the name of fairness, A-levels have become more like this, narrow memory tests, mechanisms for discouraging real learning. The “vocational” A-levels tend to be the worst – in the name of “fairness: and taking out any nasty academic abstract thinking, they in particular often become little more than memorisation of definitions. That is why they are so despised by university admissions tutors – as I said, they are not just useless but worse than useless because they encourage a bad attitude to education which is hard to turn around.

    Well, there you are – this is me being an “armchair idiot”. I say this not because I am some stuffy elitist, though often when I try to say it the shutters come down and the people I am saying it to say “lah-lah-lah, we’re not listening you’re just a stuffy elitist/armchair idiot. etc”. Actually, I was the first in my direct family not just to go to university but to have any formal qualifications. I am passionately concerned with widening access to higher education. I say this because I think young people at the lower end of our society have been appallingly badly treated in education here, but much of that appallingly bad treatment has been done naively in what was thought to be their best interests – encouraging them to take useless vocational qualifications being a good example, and refusing to listen to those who complain about it on the grounds they must be “stuffy elitists” or “armchair idiots” is another.

    Saying all this is not to say that A-level students don’t work hard. The concern is in fact that they have been set to do the wrong sort of work, that they been set work which kills rather than develops true interest in the subject and true educational skills. Sure, an A-level grade which is a measure of ability and willingness to do hard work isn’t entirely useless, but A-levels should be more than that. The line “I worked hard for my A-levels, so standards can’t have gone down” misses the point.

  • A thoroughly depressing article from someone who appears to struggle with any kind of logic never mind about boolean. In particular you might be more careful about the use of the word idiot to describe people who could well be better informed about some of the issues than yourself.

    Personally I am desperately hoping A levels will either be rebased or simply replaced with the Pre-U before my daughter takes them.

    One minor addition – the exams themselves in the subjects I have some expert knowledge of (Maths, Sciences) had already started to get significantly easier by the time I took mine in 1986-87. I don’t believe that the proportions of the grades had changed though – so there had been no inflation as such.

    I would be happy to be proven wrong on that point though – I’m not too proud to except my A levels might have been debased a bit.

  • Jon- Norm referencing ended and therefore grade inflation began two years before you sat A-levels, so I’m afraid they did lose a little value there…

  • Sean. I’m ashamed.

    A few years ago I had a look at an A level further maths from 1980 – this would be about the second year of a single subject maths degree now.

    I suppose reasonably if the degree of mathematical understanding required to achieve an A today was the same as 25 years ago we should see more A grades to reflect more entries (? I hope) )but a lesser proportion of the whole. Never really occured to me before.

    (I chose maths as it is almost timeless).

  • I’ll quote a blog post from my partner, who actually works for an exam board on this:

    “It’s funny to think that I got my own not that long ago. I have been thinking about whether the A levels are getting easier for the past year or so; on one hand I feel it may belittle my own attempts on the other I know they are. It’s contraversial but when nearly 98% of any one who tries an A level gets one you have to wonder just how easy are they?? A quarter of those get the top grade. When you talk to people they all have A or B grades – rarely D or E grades. Us are practically unheard of as they only exist at just over 2%. I could excuse it as it being so much easier to resit modules these days than in previous ones but it still doesn’t account for this – they still need to get the marks eventually.

    I’m currently teaching myself an A level in English Language & it is exceptionally easy. I went through all the material within a week working eight hours a day (did it at work because there was nothing else to do during the summer holidays). I did all the assignments & only need to write my coursework pieces to finish off the AS. Okay, yes, I need to get entries sorted for exams too… I have had some work marked & am getting at least 90%. Okay, I have an English Literature degree but it isn’t Language is it?? Surely if I can teach myself a whole AS level in one week & get A* grade marks then how is it hard? How can A levels be hard if I am 97% assured to get a grade & 25% assured to get the top grade? Even then you have to consider they are on the second syllabus since I did my A levels & have skimmed down the work/stress to four units for a whole A level – so for my language course I will be doing ONLY two exams & two sets of coursework. No wonder it takes a week.

    Thinking back to when I did my A levels, people were moaning about the gap between sciences & arts & the grades students were getting. To resolve this, again there are two spec changes & are clear statistical reports of these two fields having their achievement rates going up every year since these changes. Coincidence? No. The government want more science & maths graduates/teachers so push the JCQ to sort this problem out who propose spec changes which require senior examiners to investigate in full the papers they choose to write from these new specs & the appropriate grade boundaries.

    The joke is that my old spec A levels do not compare to the new spec A levels. My extremely hard science qualifications (Chemistry, at least) does not compare when 25% of A level students are getting A grades. Universities will not take this into account as senior examiners are meant to make each year, despite specifications, comparible. Are they? Are they hell. We have absolute idiots taking History who do not understand what a “despot” is getting their papers marked “in consideration” – consideration to mean if they answered it correctly & knew what the answer was. How pathetic. If they don’t know what it means & do not know the answer then it is wrong. How can an examiner mark a question paper with a candidate thinking “despot” means “stupid” – nothing would make sense or apply. Are we marking them for making an effort? Why did they not choose something else to answer instead? Surely one should know the words in a question when given a choice of two questions to write about. I very much doubt the other question had a word they struggled with as much as “despot”; that is unless they find difficulty with the word “authoritarian”….

    Perhaps I could graduate in Maths & be rolling in money thanks to government incentives that are biased to qualification achievements they fabricated!”

    And I do agree, the amount of people getting As devalues people who, 5 years ago got Cs on more difficult papers. Difficulty should be comparable each year, and if it isn’t, it makes everyone look bad.

  • By the way, when I posted earlier, I should have mentioned that I will be ensuring that both my sons do the IB, not A levels!

  • I really don’t have time to respond to every comment now. It’s clear that this subject is particularly sensitive, although I make no apology for what I wrote, with the exception of the embarrassing spelling mistakes that shows exactly how strong a proof-reader I am.

    To those who believe I am not qualified to make the assertions I have done, I have been a college teacher, a school governor and a job interviewer. Members of my family have been educators for decades and one in particular, a headteacher for over 40 years, agrees that a good number of people who make assertions that A-Levels are easier base it on the grades alone and then pick-and-choose their next shreds of evidence (e.g. people have cited teachers saying they are easier, but there are plenty of teachers disagreeing with that position too).

    There is a gross irony in the personal comments people have made which I have to presume is directed at my relative youth compared to people who have been in teaching for 30/40 years. I know FE is broken – I saw the appalling BTEC Advanced coursework assessments set for students when I was standing in for an ICT teacher. The incentive for these teachers is to go for the grades and not the education. The assessment objectives are so tickbox it is unfair to say that these examinations are a fair measure of how good these students are.

    I wasn’t attacking everybody who disagreed with my opinion, I was attacking those populists who disagree based on little information – I should have perhaps made this clearer in my article that I was not pointing at one whole side of the debate and calling them all idiots. There are many sides of this debate, but my biggest problem with the whole situation is that when the system is berated every August as passes rise and A-grades rise, it’s the students who get the stick for a system that challenges them with producing work that an examiner wants to see rather than work that truly makes them think outside the box and display their innovative creative side to the full.

  • The reseach I refer to above (its on Ch4’s FactCheck) suggests that grade inflation has occured. HOwever it does point out that this doesn’t automatically equate to exams being easier.

    Two factors mean that A levels of today are not the same as A levels of 20 years ago. First, you can retake modules. My E in Physics was at least partly down to the complete a**e I made of my options paper. The ability to resit that could have had a marked effect on my overall grade.

    Secondly, if there is now an AS and A2 exam at the end of each year that must impact on the teaching time available by the time you block of revision for AS and exam times in the summer of the first year. Whist we had internal exams in the summer of Lower Sixth (in old money 🙂 that was just an interruption to a full summer term of teaching.

  • Raymond Terrific 24th Aug '09 - 11:22am

    Yes the syllabus has changed. In science for example, all the difficult stuff has been removed.

    My students now do modular courses, many or even most don’t bother revising and still pass with a C. And if they fail, they retake for a couple of quid. If they had to do three long-written-answer exams in early June, instead of six shorter ones at nice little intervals throught the year with the added help of a piece of coursework that we make sure they do ‘ok’ in, they’d fail horrendously. It’s not the top 20% of children that have done well that are the ‘problem’, it’s the bottom 30% or so who are getting ‘good’ results that they do not deserve either on effort or knowledge.

    Don’t con yourself by believing it’s otherwise.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Aug '09 - 12:42pm

    I saw the appalling BTEC Advanced coursework assessments set for students when I was standing in for an ICT teacher. The incentive for these teachers is to go for the grades and not the education. The assessment objectives are so tickbox it is unfair to say that these examinations are a fair measure of how good these students are.

    Thanks, this is a useful observation and fits in with my own experience. I think you should have started off by saying this rather than by saying what you did say. For me, the big problem is getting across messages like “these qualifications are useless at developing and assessing the skills of students” because the knee-jerk reaction to this is almost inevitably “You’re only saying that because you’re an elitist” or “these students worked really hard, how can you possibly insult them by saying their qualifications are useless?” or “you just don’t know what you’re talking about” or “you should just adapt your teaching to meet the skills they have developed”.

    I don’t work in a university department where the problem is so many applicants with AAA in A-levels we don’t know what to do with them, so the grade inflation issue isn’t one that directly bothers me. The reality is that we set the grades required for entrance at whatever level it takes to fill up the place we have. What does bother me, however, is students who have been short-changed by poor qualifications which not only don’t give a good assessment of their ability and don’t actually develop useful skills, but also develop damaging attitudes to learning which place them at an even greater disadvantage when they come into higher education.

    The students on the BTEC where you taught perhaps did work very hard to get those boxes ticked. Also, some bureaucrat somewhere has said “A Distinction in this is worth the same as two A-levels at grade A”. So, how as an admissions tutor do you face a student with that sort of qualification and say “No, sorry, my experience is that this is a very poor preparation for the degree and tells me nothing about whether you will manage on it”? At the moment we are at least allowed to say this and act on it by making offers which are not just UCAS-points based, but in the future we may get the bureaucrat saying “You have to use our points system for admissions, we know better than you, who are you to say what works on the course you teach?”.

    When I was a university admissions tutor, we did take a few students with a BTEC background, but only when it was at Distinction level, with reasonable GCSEs and good references and personal statements. Even so, it was touch-and-go as to whether they succeeded or not, some did, others seemed to have almost no discernible skills in what the BTEC was supposed to be about. The more “vocational” A-levels also seemed to be like that. It would be OK if they had different but useful skills, but they didn’t seem to.

    These students seem to have suffered all along from being led by people responsible for their education who had good intentions but weren’t willing to listen to criticism because they dismissed it as “typical Daily Mail reader” stuff. Also good liberals who thought “let them do what they want to do”, not realising that a child isn’t going to have much idea about what education will be useful in the future, particularly if he or she comes from an uneducated background. The worst thing is that I felt the tick-box attitude to education actually damaged them, developed within them an attitude that by the time they came to university was very difficult to get out of them and was counter-productive to real learning.

  • MH A very good post I thought. Both my wife and I have been involved with University Admissions and recognise everything you say.

    What has happened to our exams system in the past thirty years contains so many examples of the law of unintended consquences it is truly tragic.

    One particularly obscure one struck me recently. When the teaching unions rush out to attack critics of grade of inflation (in a way which the most malevolent populist would admire) rather than propping up the public esteem of the exams they reduce that of the teaching profession. That’s a pity because I think there have been some improvements in teaching in recent decades – though that is based on no objective evidence.

    Unfortunately the “prizes for all/equality of outcome” ethos which is apparently whipped into them during training is doing nobody in Britain any favours. Maybe two of our greater sons Adam Smith and Charles Darwin should be made compulsory reading.

    I used to be very anti-private school (and would still never send my three children private) but I can now fully understand why a lot of aspirational people want to get out of the state system. Trouble is that stuffs the poor but talented even more.

  • Martin Land 24th Aug '09 - 4:21pm

    Jon: I was lucky – my parents found the one public school that ONLY takes the poor and talented. Christ’s Hospital.

  • Chris Ward – “I should have perhaps made this clearer in my article that I was not pointing at one whole side of the debate and calling them all idiots.”

    Actually you were.

    Get over it.

  • Meandyew:

    What I found most amusing about your posts is that you commented on the way I conducted myself through my tone and vocabulary, before calling me a d*ckhead and then making personal comments about my appearance.

    Either be consistent and practice what you preach, or just grow up.

  • Martin Kinsella 30th Aug '09 - 6:05pm

    @Chris Ward
    “just grow up.”

    Oh the irony.


  • @Chris Ward

    First of all I did not call you a dickhead, I said that was how you came over. If the cap fits old chap, if the cap fits.

    Your original post that started this all off came over as aggressive and ill-informed. You deserve to be chastised for it and if you do not like that or the way it is done then you need to develop a thicker skin especially if you are going to be more than a councillor in Guildford – heaven help them.

    Your witless drivel buys into the nonsense spouted by the government (the irony of someone moaning about perception of education standards when they cannot spell or punctuate is not lost on me). This is a government that is happy to push as many people through the sausage machine and concentrate of results at the expense of academic excellence. “A” grades become devalued when so many people get them.

  • @meandyew,

    I have no problem with criticism, which is why I ignored your first posts. I didn’t respond because of a lack of thick skin, I responded because you were being a hypocrite. Especially when you talk about punctuation and the number of “CV’s” you’ve seen. You’re the one hiding behind an anonymous synonym banging angry words into the keyboard. Get a life.

  • Martin Kinsella 1st Sep '09 - 4:25pm

    “Get a life.”

    Heavy irony.

  • ” Chris Ward
    Posted 31st August 2009 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I have no problem with criticism, which is why I ignored your first posts. I didn’t respond because of a lack of thick skin, I responded because you were being a hypocrite. Especially when you talk about punctuation and the number of “CV’s” you’ve seen. You’re the one hiding behind an anonymous synonym banging angry words into the keyboard. Get a life.”

    You’ll have to do better than that. Get a Life. It is you who is the one having a hissy fit about your oh-so wonderful educational achievements. As someone else has pointed out it is heavily ironic.

    You also responded to my first post. Again you need to do better.

    My comment about your spelling and grammar was appropriate. Can you not see the irony of someone moaning about perceptions of young people being thicker yet cannot spell and punctuate properly. It does not back up your argument at all.

    My spelling and punctuation is not relevant to the issue as I am not the one trumpeting my academic achievements. However you are entitled to throw whatever mud you wish to. It hardly re-inforces your point.

  • @ meandyew and ChrisWard

    Hi there Meandyew,

    I have enjoyed reading your conversation between Chris and yourself. I am intrigued at your apparent lack of empathy for the students who DO work hard, DO revise and DO acheive good results. Perhaps the UMS points system of marking is not as clear in defining the top students from the “good” students, but I struggle to understand how this means young people today are less intelligent than they were 10-20 years ago. Our curriculums cover much wider subjects, and the use of technology has put greater pressure on achieving fast, accurate results.

    This summer I recieved my GCSE results and was very proud of myself to achieve 11 (straight) A*s. It angers me to see people like yourself seemingly devalueing my results. I worked extremely hard to get that. It was very very hard. Only 2 people in my year of over 300 acheieved straight A*s, and I know why. It’s because not everyone worked until 2am for the 4 weeks leading up to the exams, getting up at 6:30 to work before school. Not everyone cares about their education, but many do. And it is wrong for you to stereotype in the way you have.

    As for the modular system, having to work consisently throughout the year, taking exams throughout the year is tough – it puts constant pressure on us. It means we cannot “cram” for the final exams at the end of the year.

    I recognise that I have made spelling mistakes during this comment, but I hope you can ignore them – I am trying to factorise cubic quadratics at the same time!


  • @sanbikinoraion

    My point precisely Sanbikinoraion – having to work this hard at the end of EVERY term( because of modular exams) AS WELL as consisently throughout the term itself. I made a mistake – I should have written “It means we cannot JUST “cram” for the final exams at the end of the year.” Apologies.

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