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The A-level debate: a failure of intelligence

How the annual row over the rising pass rate misses the mark.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

What is the A-level results debate about? Is it:

  1. A conspiracy by right-wing miserablists to pour scorn upon the achievements of young people and the New Labour government in one breath;
  2. A conspiracy by loony lefties and New Labour centrists to rig exam results and hoodwink the electorate into believing that things are getting better;
  3. An annual opportunity for a useful debate about the state of Britain’s education system;
  4. None of the above?

The correct answer, I believe, is ‘d’ – though those giving any other answer will get plenty of recognition for trying. The predictable annual spat over whether A-levels are dumbing down (‘Oh yes they are!’ says the CBI and half the press; ‘Oh no they’re not!’ says the government and the other half) has gone on for too long to have a serious debate about education. Whether you think the annual rise in A-level passes and top grades is a positive example of children’s greater intelligence and application or a negative example of grade inflation and the politicisation of exam results; whether you think the A-level ‘gold standard’ should be retained or replaced by something else entirely – none of that really seems to matter anymore.

The real problem is that the upwards rise of A-level grades, and the phoney right-left ding dong that accompanies the results every year, has rendered these qualifications all but meaningless. A useful table in The Times (London) shows that between 1965 and 1980, the A-level pass rate remained steady at about 68 per cent, fluctuating up and down around a decimal point (1). From 1985, the pass rate and the proportion of top grades began to leap in blocks of over five per cent – rising from 70.5 per cent in 1985 to 77 per cent in 1990, to 84 per cent in 1995, 89.1 per cent in 2000, and 96 per cent in 2004. The proportion of top grades has jumped from under 10 per cent in 1985 to 22.4 per cent in 2004 – meaning that about one-fifth of those taking A-levels (not even those who pass them) are likely to get top grades. This year’s results follow the trend, with the pass rate up again to 96.2 per cent.

The question is surely not ‘Is this grade inflation?’, but rather ‘How can this not be grade inflation?’ The fact that some still doggedly argue that Britain’s A-grade A-levels are a consequence of children magically becoming brighter and more hard-working says more about the political elite’s capacity for self-delusion than any educational reality. Its capacity to cling to this fantasy not only reveals its unwillingness to deal with the underlying crisis in education, which we have discussed elsewhere on spiked (see spiked-issue: Education). It also reveals a callous disregard for those to whom this issue matters personally and immediately – students and their parents.

Despite its protestations about the rising A-level pass rate being A Good Thing, New Labour is painfully aware that education policy today is about dealing with a number of reality gaps: the fact that a greater proportion of young people holding more and higher-grade qualifications than ever before coexists with rising levels of functional ignorance, as reported by businesses and universities alike; the expansion of the higher education sector and the increasing numbers of eligible students coexists with an undignified scramble for certain courses and certain universities, and the inability of students to get on to degree programmes that they have been taught that they deserve; the obsession with children receiving a top-quality education goes side-by-side with parental dissatisfaction with neither being able to improve nor change their child’s school.

The more the political elite has promoted the importance of education, the more it is confronted with the reality of a fragmented, incoherent education system from primary to university level, with which parents, students and educationalists are increasingly dissatisfied. Rather than confronting this problem, however, it seeks to manage it by pushing the burden of responsibility back on to parents, students, schools and higher education institutions, forcing them to negotiate their way through the labyrinth and lauding this process as ‘choice’ in education.

So A-level students clutching their top grades find that what they have achieved is not a passport to academic success, but an economy-class ticket to hundreds of lookalike courses at soundalike higher education institutions across the country – and their task is to work their way through it all to separate the few best courses and institutions from the rest. Every year a row breaks out about all of those A-grade students who have been ‘rejected’ from Oxbridge, their university of choice – either because they come from a state school and are intimidated by the admissions process, or because they come from a private school and have been ‘discriminated against’ because of the current demands for Oxbridge to improve its quota of state school students. This row invariably leads to demands for Oxbridge to become more popular and accessible – in other words, less like the Oxbridge that students want to go to for the simple reason that they know it’s a good university. It’s a no-win situation, which fails A-level students across the board.

Meanwhile, parents looking for a decent school for their kids are bombarded with guff about this specialism or that amount of ‘value added’, and scrutinise league tables in a frantic attempt to ditch the unbearable (results below the national average), the unattainable (posh areas in which they can’t afford to live) and the inconvenient (where the journey to and from takes the length of a school day), before closing their eyes and leaping into the pit of the mediocre.

All the time these choices are being made, with the nagging knowledge that indicators of good schools and universities are based on qualification structures that nobody believes in anymore (GCSE and A-level pass rates), and will result in an accreditation that nobody really believes in either (a 2:1 degree from anywhere except a handful of top universities). In a sea of platitudes and prospectuses, the only choice question that matters – how do I ensure a good education for myself or my child? – becomes impossible to answer. Because if nobody in the world of education policy can agree on what a good education is, let alone how you define it in a league table, how are parents and students possibly supposed to work it out?

Many do try, of course – only to be told that this is not their choice to make. An article in The Times (London) on Monday reported that ‘a growing number of Labour councils are taking parents to court to try to prevent them from sending their children to the school of their choice’ (2). These parents, who seem to have gone on the only indicator of educational quality available to them – choosing local schools that are popular, presumably because they are good – are being told that choice doesn’t extend to making the choices that other people are making. This neatly sums up the philosophy behind New Labour’s faux-egalitarian choice-centred approach to education – we are free to choose to go anywhere, and become anything, provided we are not choosing the best.

(1) A-level results to add pressure for university entrance tests, Times (London), 15 August 2005

(2) ‘We are fighting for the right to a good, local education’, Times (London), 15 August 2005

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Topics Politics

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