Exam results

Why A-levels are all over the place.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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This year’s A-level results have been released, to the usual furore.

The pass rate, which has been rising for years, has now reached 94.3 percent. The proportion of A-grades has also risen, to 20.7 percent.

The wrangling over ‘grade inflation’ polarises debate like little else. One side bemoans falling standards, the other celebrates rising standards and castigates critics for bemoaning students’ achievements. As to what is really going on, God only knows.

The longer the pass rate at A-level continues to rise, the less convincing the ‘exams are getting easier’ line becomes. Easier than what? In 50 years’ time, will we still be measuring educational standards against O-levels?

But the notion that pupils today are suddenly far brighter and better educated than their parents’ generation beggars belief. Everybody knows that the content, timing, meaning and grading of assessment methods has been consistently overhauled to encourage more and more people to pass.

Whatever side of the easier/harder camp you put yourself on, it is clear that the ever-rising pass rate, and the discussion around it, reflects a deep confusion about the purpose of exams. This reflects a deeper confusion about the purpose of education. So, for anybody interested in engaging in this debate, I suggest the following questions.

1) What is secondary education for? Is it:

  • a) To educate pupils?
  • b) To get them through exams?
  • c) To get them to university?
  • d) To boost their self-esteem?

2) What are exams for? Are they:

  • a) To measure pupils’ educational attainment?
  • b) To get pupils into higher education?
  • c) To boost their self-esteem?

3) What is higher education for? Is it:

  • a) To foster young people’s intellectual development?
  • b) To get them into work?
  • c) To boost their self-esteem?

No doubt the government would answer ‘yes’ to all of these. One of the best indications of the lack of clarity within current education policy is the tendency to view education as a panacea for all ills. But when it comes down to it, ever-rising exam grades reflect a failure to achieve all bar one of the supposed goals.

Education helps get pupils through exams and coursework – indeed, school students today seem to do little more than work out on a relentless treadmill of assessment. But when the focus is on passing as many of these tests as possible, pupils seem to be getting less and less education.

When A grades are everywhere, that does not help universities decide who they should accept, and who they should not. When the standard university degree is a First or Upper Second, it is no use to employers for sorting the best from the rest. And when everybody’s apparently a genius, passing your A-levels presumably does sod all to boost your self-esteem.

What young people need today is less bitching and patronising about exam results, and more education. Because when it comes to providing a decent education for education’s sake, society really is failing them.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

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Topics Politics


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