Happiness in Bangor

It’s half term now, or Long Exeat as we call it, and I’m enjoying the week off doing very little apart from reading books.  I’ve been reading the ‘Weird Tales’ of H P Lovecraft, which are pretty weird in a Victorian Gothic ghosts and ghouls-type way.  I’ve obviously not switched off from School completely though, because I came across an article in last week’s TES which makes Lovecraft seem like the epitome of normality.

The article is by Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths, who teaches at a Sixth Form College in Norfolk.  In it he attempts to explain that whereas we are all frustrated by the low motivation and work ethic of some pupils, the opposite can also be the case, and pupils do exist that are ‘driven’ and ‘obsessed’ and sometimes these can be ‘just as draining’.  He gives the example of one of his pupils called ‘Michael’ (this can’t help reminding me of the Franz Ferdinand song, which is unfortunate given its strong homoerotic message).  Anyway, Michael is an able mathematician, who has done well in his A level modules, but is worried that he has lost some marks along the way that may mean he does not secure the A grade he needs to attend Cambridge.   

Here’s where Jonny steps in, and says: 

‘Michael, apart from you, who cares what you get in your A level?’. [controversial line, needs some back up]

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
‘I mean, I care, of course,’ I add, swiftly. ‘But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?’ [classic argument fallacy – limit the options, neither of which sound that great to me]
“Michael is too stunned to reply.”

Later of course, the moment that Jonny is right all along dawns on Michael in a cringe-worthy final paragraph.  Michael answers a question in class (wrongly) and is corrected by another member of the class.  He then turns to look at Jonny, a smile breaks out over his face, and then he realises….what?  That he was crap at Maths all along, that he might as well go to Bangor, that he doesn’t really give a shit either way, or maybe Franz Ferdinand were right all along, and that he and Jonny should head down to Disco X right there and then.

The real problem here is that there is a very important and valid point that Jonny is trying to get across, but that it’s been lost in a clumsily-worded article.  The problem is that the current examination system has heaped extra pressure on pupils, pressure that did not exist until about ten years ago when the examinations went modular.

One of the main purposes of examinations (and I do mean examinations, not education) at Sixth Form level is to sort a very large number of pupils into two distinct categories: those that go to university and those that don’t.  Within the former category, the examinations need to assign pupils to universities and courses that are appropriate to their interests, talents and ambitions.  Students at university should be appropriately challenged academically, but it’s wrong for someone to end up on a course that is too demanding for them as to end up on one which is conceptually beneath them.

So what’s the problem?

1.  You can do the exams several times

Some papers can be taken four times through the course of the Sixth Form, and only your best mark counts.  Most universities don’t care how many times you had to take the paper to gain the best mark.  

2.  Some subjects are much easier than others

Studies show that there’s about a two-grade difference between the hardest and easiest subjects.  This means that the same pupil (without specific talents in one subject over another) would get two grades higher for, say Film Studies, than they would for Physics.  Even within the same subject, the percentages of A grades are different depending on what exam board you take.  The differences here are smaller, but not negligible.

3.  You can pay for examiners to come in and tell you the answers 


4.  Formulaic examinations

I very rarely hear pupils telling me that they don’t understand topics, or that they don’t possess the knowledge to be able to answer questions.  The oft-most cited reason for losing marks is ‘examination technique’, as in ‘I knew everything about that question, but my exam technique let me down’.  Never mind; all we have to do is work through a filing cabinet-full of past papers, and all the examination technique problems will disappear.  Except they won’t; all that will happen is that you will do the same style of question so many times that you’ve developed a rote manner for answering that particular question.  It doesn’t matter that this particular brand of technique will never be required again, so long as they help you gain that A.  These formulaic examinations also reward a particular type of pupil, the automative ‘t-crosser’.  This type of person is useful if you want a large data-entry to be completed accurately, but they aren’t necessarily the kind of creative thinker that’s going to deal with the population/economic/energy crises.

5.  Grade inflation

1980: 8% of A level grades were A.  2011: 8% of A level grades were A*, with around 30% at grade A.  Grade inflation is happening, and it’s not that teachers are getting better or pupils are getting cleverer.  It’s also not that exams are getting easier, which is often seen to be the public’s belief.  It’s simply that much more teaching is focused on how to pass these exams.  This isn’t really what teachers want, but this is what has happened, and it’s understandable why.  By cramming so many grades awarded at the top end, we are struggling to differentiate between pupils, and this is the reason that Jonny’s pupil Michael feels quite so under pressure.  He knows that to get AAA twenty years ago would put him in a real academic elite; nowadays, this isn’t good enough.  He needs A* grades, maybe two of them.  He’s stuck with ‘gymnastics scoring’, where 9.975 is good, and 9.895 is frankly rubbish.

6.  Unfair grading

Every now and again, I mention to non-teaching friends of mine that it’s possible to get 320/400 marks at A level to gain an A*, and to get 379/400 and gain an A.  They think it’s ridiculous and so do I, but it’s the truth.  Bearing in mind that top universities use A* grades in their offers, they’re not even certain of separating out the top pupils by marks any more.   

7.  Extra filtering

Pupils can now be filtered out of top courses on their GCSE grades, and it’s very unlikely that anyone will get an offer from Oxbridge without at least 6A* grades on their CV.  But why does a Maths GCSE matter for a brilliant linguist and why should an aspiring medic be discriminated against for being only quite good at French?  Pupils at different Schools take different numbers of GCSE subjects, and some subjects are harder than others.  Due to the grade inflation point above, universities need extra ways of filtering out pupils.  Looking at GCSE scores makes little more sense than looking at hair colour.

So what’s the solution?

Place more emphasis on problem solving in examinations; take away an over-reliance on past papers; add an abilities test to the end of Sixth Form examinations; scrap GCSEs; allow universities to set their own entrance papers; do away with coursework; don’t allow re-takes; cap the number of A grades that are awarded each year; break the links between chief examiners and School visits; have fewer Sixth Form subjects – not every course needs to have an exam at the end of it to be educational.

And finally, don’t let Jonny Griffiths write an article in the TES again.


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