It’s that time again…

…when the news programmes hammer on about the A Level results.

And the students say, “Of course they’re not easier than they used to be, we work really hard!”, while old farts like me say, “but 24% getting a grade A? How can that be good?”.

The reality is a bit more complicated of course, but lets nail one thing first: the connection between students working hard and the grade profile is effectively a non sequitur. Students may work very hard indeed (and I don’t doubt they do), but that doesn’t answers the standards question of whether what they’re doing is easier than it used to be. So it’s quite disingenuous for the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, to say:

“Every year we get the same old tired assertions about A-level standards supposedly being lower.

“The publication of the A-levels should be a day of celebration for students that have done well and not a denigration of their achievement.

“While I don’t agree with the critics, it is of course right that we debate standards – but let’s do that on another day.”

Supposedly? Of course, Mr Knight kind of has a vested interest in playing with the straight bat on this one. He can’t say that they might be getting easier, because that makes him open to attack from the opposition, who will yell hysterically that Labour have dumbed down our schools. But he can’t really mount a concerted defence because there are many reasons to suggest that A Level content might be (getting easier).

Some of the most salient points about the A-Level system have been made about students themselves. Recently I saw several of them commenting on A-Level standards. The major complaint was that the levels of coursework did make things easier, whereas exam-based subjects were still felt to be stretching students (oddly mostly maths and science, but that’s a whole other discussion). Modular schemes also make it easier to repeat work and “cram” for modules that you can quickly forget. This is not conjecture, I see it every year in the university system, where students come from A-Levels and do exactly the same thing in modular degree schemes. Strangely, increasing numbers need remedial support for basic numeracy and literacy. But standards have not slipped.

Then there’s the grading for both A/AS Levels and then GCSE’s. There’s lots of talk about the A* and possible A** grades. Here’s an idea. Why don’t you just call an A** and A, a A* a B and so on. Or is that because lots of middle class parents won’t want to see Jemima and Rupert getting 2 C’s and a D in their A Levels. Unfortunately, there has to be some differentiation and yes, some people have to fail: that’s why it’s an exam and there’s a pass mark. We are moving into a culture where it seems no one is allowed to fail in the education system. And in the long term that actually helps no one.

But, in spite of all of that, congratulations to all of those who got A-Levels today. and a big “don’t worry” to those who didn’t do so well. It’s not the end of the world. Honest.


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