Making the Grade

It’s A level results day, and the same lazy hackneyed news stories have been trotted out. I feel guilty for boring you with them, but if anyone has missed any of the following during the course of this day, you must have been living under a rock. Or maybe you were watching Trisha on 5.

We’ve had:

1. News footage of pupils opening their results. Some whoop, some cry.
2. Discussion on the news about grade inflation, and the fact that A level passes have gone up for the 28th consecutive year. This isn’t news, it’s just something that happens, like the sun coming up, or someone going to the toilet.
3. The ‘scramble’ for university places, a question of how much debt is accrued whilst doing a degree, the fact that graduates earn far more in the course of a career….

It’s almost as if it’s a public holiday for all TV and newspaper journalists, and they can re-print word for word the uninteresting waffle that they paraded out 365 days ago.

So are A levels getting easier? Are kids getting brighter?

Well, here’s some facts. In 1980, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A grade. In 2010, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A*. When I went to Durham University in 1994, my offer was BCD, albeit for a pretty uncompetitive subject. Nowadays we have pupils rejected on AAB.

So more pupils get higher grades, this much is true. This isn’t the pupils fault, and far too much vitriol is chucked their way by the older generation, who had it ‘so much easier’ in their day. No they didn’t; granted, you had to absorb lots of information, which could then be regurgitated onto the answer paper before promtly being forgotten (how many 30-somethings can remember much about covalent bonding?), but in order to ensure that skills of complex communication and problem solving do not disappear from the workplace, papers these days need to test more than just rote learning.

We are preparing our pupils for jobs that do not exist yet. No-one wanted to be a nanotechnologist or web designer 15 years ago, because these jobs did not exist; it’s the same with today’s crop of pupils. They don’t need to carry vast amounts of irrelevant information around in their head. We have google for that. They do need to know how to get by when presented with problems or situations with which they are unfamiliar, and that’s the most important thing.

Another problem faced by pupils today is that it’s so much more difficult to stand out. 30 years ago three A grades marked you out as something very special. Nowadays (and I’m talking pre-A*) there are so many pupils pushed up to this top end that it’s difficult to differentiate, and consequently the upper-middle quality pupils get mixed up with the high quality pupils. Has the A* solved things? Of course not. Is a pupil who scores 90% significantly better than one who scores 85%? We did have a system where many pupils were able to secure their A grades and still have plenty of time for independent research, sport, music, drama etc. We are now rewarding the ‘t’ crossers and ‘i’ dotters, and it’s become more important to write like a markscheme rather than an intelligent human being.

Are pupils becoming significantly more able and intelligent? It would seem unlikely, and certainly not noticeably so in the last 30 years (a limited time period for human evolution). It’s also interesting that they seem to be becoming more intelligent by a similar fraction each year. What is happening is that pupils are competing against greater numbers, in exams which generally fail to differentiate appropriately.

So we’ve confirmed that pupils have it tougher than many of those who criticise. But what about the other side of the argument? The side that justifies the increase in A level performace? This is the argument that it’s actually the quality of teaching that allows for these increases; as teachers get better, so do the pupils they teach. It is fair to say that in recent years there has been a greater interest taken in the philosophy of education in Schools (largely in the state sector), and we are now starting to question how pupils learn rather than simply ‘drilling and skilling’, which is the bit we’ve become good at over the years. It’s a fallacy to say that teachers have lead to this improvement however, and it’s insulting to the pupils too. Many of the same teachers have taught exactly the same way for the past 28 years’ worth of increased results.

How much do results even matter? Does it matter if someone who was capable of getting the grades for Durham actually ends up going to Manchester, or Birmingham? They might meet better friends there, have a nicer house, find a great tutor. In the end, there are so many variables, it’s impossible to tell. I’ve taught many pupils who have achieved AAA in their A levels, and I knew they’d do just fine for themselves. I just wasn’t all that interested in what it was they ended up doing. I’ve also taught some underachieving pupils, who failed to get the grades of which they were capable. For some of them, I really do wonder what they’re up to, and for some, I know it’ll be something impressive. They may not have shone academically at School, but they had something about them that told me they’d be successful. There’s a bit of inner personal quality that can trump pretty much everything you’ve got written on paper. Would the people with the top ten best academic qualifications amongst my colleagues match with the top ten best teachers?

But back to the reporting of this total non-story: thank God for the recession, otherwise it really would have been groundhog day.