Saturday, 18 August 2012

A-Levels: Did they get easier? A multi-choice.

Hazy days have passed since A-level results so it doesn't feel ghoulish to gnaw on a few mouldy bones and see what kind of soup we can make from the stock. Results day has visited, eaten the scones and fled, and like an enormous Sorting Hat for attractive, spring-heeled Cotswolds dryads ('A lawyer you shall be!' 'A civil servant!' 'Ah, alas you shall be an educational blogger') destinies have been ordained or ossified to the rustle of Manilla envelopes.

The time has come, though, to speak of other things (insert joke about cabbages getting into King's here). The A-level pass rate now stands at 98%, and has been rising for thirty years. The % of entries resulting in an A or higher has also been climbing steadily for decades. And now turn away, reader: it has stalled, nay it has nose an astounding 0.4% this year. IT'S A MASSACRE. This is because Ofqual has 'advised' exam boards to 'err on the conservative side' to tackle what Glenys Stacey described as 'persistent grade inflation.'

There's been a lot of heat and light generated in this debate for as long as I can remember: what can explain this relentless ascent that has characterised A-level results for over a generation in education? Forget aping the Finns and robbing the tuck shops of Singapore- we have F*CKING CRACKED IT ALL BY OURSELVES. They should be watching us, feeling their undercarriages stirred by strange, primitive, envious passions, not the reverse. What could explain this scenario of success, this rags to royal robes story? There are three options:

1. Kids got smarter. 

YOU MAY SCOFF. But this is a theory that has been shuffling around for a while, looking embarrassed to be at the party. Some have said that children have actually become  brainier since the war. You may be familiar with the Flynn effect, the rather odd phenomena where IQ scores have been genuinely increasing year on year, for many years. It reminds me of the old pulp comic description of Superman's home world Krypton, 'A planet where men and women have reached near physical and mental perfection.' Maybe that's us; maybe, like Olympic records, the mental benchmarks are being hurdled and vaulted by successively intelligent generations?

But no. All the evidence we have supports the theory that our brains haven't changed in any significant way for many tens of thousands of decades- as we would expect from the Vatican-slow creep of evolutionary process. And the Flynn effect has levelled off in the developed countries, suggesting that other factors were behind the data- better nutrition, better schooling and so on, all benefiting the bottom end of the IQ scale and raising the average, along with greater familiarity with test-taking. Besides, species-wide change in genotype is measured with millenia, in human lifespans, not the heart beat of a few generations. We're not yeast.

No, they haven't become smarter. Not year on year, year after year. I've been in this game for a decade. The kids aren't smarter. Honestly.

2. Teaching has improved. 

Fifty shades of grade.
I refer you to my previous answer: I've been in the game for at decade, and I've worked with people who have worked for far longer. Teaching has not improved by an average 0.5% every year, without fail. It just hasn't. Nor have schools improved by the same amount. There have been great improvements made in some aspects of British education since the war, but significant gains in the way we teach? Not a bit of it. I can barely name an initiative- or at least I can count on two hands- that has made any real difference to the way we educate children. Personalised learning, independent learning, group learning, emotional intelligence, three part lessons, WALT and WILF....almost everything has been as transformational and innovative as an antimacassar, a homoeopathic syringe of magic water spunked secretly and uselessly into the canteen mashed potato.

I only have ten years' perspective; I can say without a trace of doubt, that teaching has not improved in the last ten years. If anything, I'd say the micro-management, the Soviet levels of reduction and reification and form-filling have damaged our ability to deliver anything  meaningful, but I don't need to prove that. I just need to make the claim that it hasn't improved.

3. There has been sorcery in the way we examine our students.

When I say sorcery, I'm being kind. You'll notice my opening quote from Glenys Stacey. She's the HEAD OF OFQUAL. You'll remember the scandal last April when the telegraph exposed the common practice of teacher seminars given by exam boards where 'clues' were given out like Easter Eggs to the content of the exams; the admission by exam salesmen that their syllabuses had 'better' pass rates (ie they were easier), and the whole bloody Eton mess of having competition between exam boards, which, being instruments of a market, were pressured to create survival advantages that would encourage their success.

To test this hypothesis, one good approach would be, of course, to look at exam papers from thirty years ago and exam papers today. They would have shown some kind of dissolution into ease, wouldn't they? And they do. they do. Compare maths, english, science, with their ancestors, and if you think they're anything other than substantially easier, then I have some real estate on the Moon I'd like to offer you.Essay style questions have been reduced across the board; questions have been chunked into smaller fragments; multiple choice options have been accentuated. And of course, modules have been introduced, which enables greater possibility of incremental resitting.

Schools are now ruthlessly judged by their data; their place on league tables. Bean counters have this odd belief that in order to be healthy, a school examination record must show incremental improvements over time, as if they were some kind of odd balance sheets. This is surely one of the most vicious misinterpretations of schooling of them all. It's weird enough demanding infinitely expanding success in business, but at least there you have shareholders and dividends to fluff and nurse. What's the excuse for this devilish model in schools? Whatever it is (and I suspect the answer is simply 'Because we're stupid and a bit greedy'), it has been the spur and goad of the metrification, and subsequent mortification, of the schools. It has reduced us from a profession to a sector.


And to anyone who gets their knickers in a twist, seeing this as some kind of attack on the children or teachers, some kind of dismissal of their efforts, who think that criticising the process by which our children are graded and sorted is a simultaneous attack on the months of perspicacity and perspiration that lead up to the Manilla certificates, well, I'd ask them to explain how we are meant to proceed? Should we refuse to talk about global warming because it might disarm our infants of the belief that Santa lives at the North Pole?

So, option 1,2,3. Take your pick. 


  1. Useful. Perspicacious. As usual. Thanks.

    1. Thanks. One of my favourite words, thanks to Huckleberry Finn.


  2. Whereas teaching amy or may not have improved in the last 20 years, i believe we are better at teaching to the test. I use old questions and mark schemes a lot more than i used to 15 - 2-0 years ago.

    and what does perspicacious mean? (excuse ignorance)


    1. Oh there is NO DOUBT WE ARE BETTER AT THIS FEAT, D Boy :) It's now hardwired into our DNA

  3. It means clear sighted and shrewd( I googled it)

    I often use old papers as well and as I teach SEN children, I often have the thought that they have to work twice as hard to achieve their grades.

    As for teachers, we also have to work twice as hard! To please the governors, head, heads of dept, children, parents, Ofsted, the govt, the daily mail....the list goes on.

    1. The endless cycle of faux accountability means that much of our time is spent not actually teaching, but feeding the beast of bureaucracy....

  4. Excellent, as always Tom. I think you should be in charge.

  5. Thanks, animal. And that would be a dreadful thing to contemplate, but cheers. Tell Gove.

  6. If we haven't improved by 0.5% a year, I wonder how much (if at all) we have improved by? And how much we should be expected to improve by (if at all)? We need some very clever statisticians if we're ever going to get anywhere and it seems they're all busy calling Talk Sport if my recent drive to the coast is anything to go by.

  7. If you REALLY want to know the answer then do the work. Familiarise yourself with, say, the Maths or Physics syllabus of today and of 25 years ago, and then do a paper from the relevant year. The outcome will be hilarious. And then you'll know. I know teachers who teach science today that would struggle to get an O level B or A grade.