Is it really 14 years since I got my A-level results? That summer morning when I made a nervous phone call to find out if I had got the results that I needed to continue my education at University.
The A-levels I took were in English Literature, History and Geography, and I knew that I needed to get three 'B' grades if I was to take up my place reading Modern European & Renaissance History at the University of Warwick. I was fairly confident that I could manage this - in fact I thought I had an outside chance of getting three As - but it was still a nerve-wracking moment, and I couldn't shake the thought that I had completely fluffed one of my English exams thanks to a rather less than perfect understanding of Henry IV part II and the poems of George Herbert. In fact, I had woken up that morning having had a vivid dream that I had got AAD, so in the end I was quite pleased to get AAB - more than enough to get me to University (although 14 years is not yet long enough for me to find it in my heart to forgive one of my English teachers for his absolutely pathetic attempts to teach us those texts - so thanks for that Mr. Nurser).
A-levels are supposed to be the "gold standard" of exams in Britain: they determine if you are going to continue with your education, or if you are going to do something else with your life. Every year we hear that they are getting easier. When this year's results were announced this week, we saw an improvement in the pass rate for the 24th successive year.
I got my results in 1992, and the overall pass rate was 79.8% (a "pass" in this context is a grade from A-E) and the percentage of candidates scoring an 'A' grade was 12.8%. This year, the pass rate was 96.6% and 'A' grades represented an astonishing 24.1%. That means that 1 in 4 papers scored an 'A' grade.
By way of comparison, the percentage of papers getting an 'A' grade in 1978 was 8.9%.
Hardly surprisingly, this plethora of top grades means that the benchmark for getting into the most heavily subscribed courses at Universities has also risen. If you wanted to study Modern European History & Renaissance History at Warwick now, you'd need to get three A grades... which of course lots of people are now getting.
It would be lovely to think that this relentless improvement in results was down to the people sitting these exams getting brighter and brighter. It isn't. Obviously the exams are getting easier. Universities have been complaining for some time now that their new intake of students just isn't up to the standard they would expect of first year undergraduates, and presumably this will have the knock-on effect that degrees are getting easier (and more students than ever before are getting first class degrees).
Partly as a result of Tony Blair's misguided statement that 50 percent of the population should go to University, there are now more Universities in the UK than ever before, and something like 2.4m students currently in higher education. 40% of the UK workforce now has a degree. Is it worth the bother? (and apparently the average total cost of a three year course is £33,512). Wouldn't we all just be better getting a job?
What's really interesting to me though is this idea that we all have a *RIGHT* to further education. This implies that somehow it's unfair that people with brains should be able to qualify for further education and no one else can. In fact, it's more than unfair - it's discriminatory, and New Labour aren't having it.
I'm not suggesting that we create an intellectual elite, but how is sending everyone to university helping anyone?
It reminds me of that old joke about humanities graduates:
Q. What do you say to the holder of a first class degree in English Literature?
A. Big Mac and fries please.
How we laughed.
Actually, screw that. I'm sick of being sneered at by people for using words they don't understand, or for reading a book that they consider "poncey". Let's create an intellectual elite and bollocks to the lot of them.
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