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The A-Level Debate


Hold up! Before you read on, please read this...

This post was published more than 15 years ago

I keep old posts on the site because I often enjoy reading old content on other people's sites. It can be interesting to see how views have changed over time: for example, how my strident teenage views have, to put it mildly, mellowed.

I'm not a believer in brushing the past under the carpet. I've written some offensive rubbish on here in the past: deleting it and pretending it never happened doesn't change that. I hope that stumbling across something that's 15 years old won't offend anyone anew, because I hope that people can understand that what I thought and felt and wrote about then is probably very different to what I think and feel and write about now. It's a relic of an (albeit recent) bygone era.

So, given the age of this post, please bear in mind:

  • My views may well have changed in the last 15 years. I have written some very silly things over the years, many of which I find cringeworthy today.
  • This post might use words or language in ways which I would now consider inappropriate, offensive, embarrassing, or all three.
  • Factual information might be outdated.
  • Links might be broken, and embedded material might not appear properly.

Okay. Consider yourself duly warned. Read on...

This week, as ever, there’s the annual debate on whether A-Levels are getting easier. It’s interesting to see that of the seven people interviewed by the Guardian, only the one outside of the education system says they are getting easier. So that’s an interesting observation.

Every time I read a story like this, it puts in mind a Guardian comment piece from last summer, which I have stuck on my wall. It surprises me that I never blogged it, but better late than never:

It has become impossible to deny. As many commentators have noted, standards are not what they were. The only conclusion is that the Olympics have been “dumbed down”. How else can we explain that, at each Olympic games, more and more medals are handed out? And how else can we explain that at each games, world records are frequently broken? These facts alone suggest that the events have somehow been made easier.

Of course, some officials will attempt to deny it. They will argue using such terms as “level playing field” and point to improved coaching and more intensive training methods. But do they expect us to believe that the so-called “gold standard” of gold medals are worth the metal they are cast upon? At one time, competitors faced far more rigorous tests, in a narrow range of traditional subjects such as Latin and chariot racing. Yet today’s young people are spoon-fed at every step, and allowed to opt for easier subjects such as beach volleyball and synchronised media studies.

To make matters worse, some entrants are able to “re-sit” their chosen events if they don’t get the result they wanted first time around. Take Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimmer. Last time, in Sydney, he failed to get a top-grade mark in the 200m freestyle. What does he do? He took his finals again – and this time, somewhat predictably, won a gold. Is this fair? How right that Tory spokesman Tim Collins should vow to stop multiple re-sits, saying: “Olympic athletes do not get a second or third go … if they don’t like the result.” Except the ones that do.

Things have got so bad, thanks to the glut of top results, that prestigious institutions such as Nike and McDonald’s are besieged by applicants for sponsorship deals, all clutching a slew of medals. How are these institutions going to be able to choose the best candidates to front their advertising campaigns? Take the badminton mixed doubles: Britain had failed to pass the semi-finals – until now, when it has gained a silver grade. At this rate of progress, by the 2076 Olympics Britain will win gold in every subject, a clear example of the “all shall have prizes” mentality. It is physical correctness gone mad.

However much I personally don’t think the exams are getting easier per se, there certainly are new A-Levels which are easier than some of the traditional options, and the A-Level standard clearly needs to be, erm, standardised across subject areas. However much anybody tries, nobody is going to convince me that the A-Level English Language and Literature syllabus is anywhere near as challenging as the A-Level Chemistry syllabus. I have a far more scientific than linguistic brain, sat both of the above papers, and yet still found the former infinitely easier than the latter.

Also, however hard the exams are, they are essentially pointless if they fail to divide the best from the very good. So what’s the solution? It would seem sensible to me for universities to institute their own tests, along the lines of the Oxbridge MVAT test, which would allow them to test candidates for the particular qualities required to succeed in a given course. Obviously, only those with appropriate A-Level results would be invited to take the tests. That way, university selection would improve, so drop-out rates would fall, and A-Levels would still have value despite increasingly well performing students.

Of course, that leaves industry in a bit of a pickle, but they usually manage to sort themselves out, and I’m sure they would in this situation. Besides which, students who tend to go straight into industry tend not to have the very-top results, which are the ones that are causing problems with differentiation anyway. So it possibly isn’t such a problem in that particular sector.

Maybe there’s a better solution all-round, but I certainly can’t see it. And I’m confident Ruth Kelly won’t, either.

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17th August 2006.

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