Sunday 20 August 2006

we'll use the one thing we've got more of - that's our minds...

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.


  1. I'm all for creating an intellectual elite, I think we are devolving as a species. If we stop keeping stupid people alive we will collectively grow and evolve. Here's to your brave new world !

  2. I've covered it HERE. I don't think papers are getting easier - but the information is now much much easier to find.

  3. I agree with you about the number of degrees on offer and how they are potentially diminishing the advantages of having one, but I don't like this "exams are getting easier" argument. I don't know, I just find it a bit patronising to those people who have obtained good grades in their exams to tell them "well, they were harder when we did them". It just seems a bit condescending, that's all.

    But god yeah. Using the correct words for certain situations, however long or unusual is what bloody language is for....

  4. I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be glib about this, but I just think that the statistics don't support much of a counter-argument. I reckon we have 3 possible explanations for the increase in passes and A grades

    1) people are getting cleverer
    2) exams are getting easier
    or 3) exams are just as hard, but being marked more leniently.

    I don't think people are getting stupider, necessarily, but I struggle to believe they are getting cleverer.

    Cambridge University are now having to ask their 1st year undergraduates in Maths to do a 2 week intensive course to bring them up to the basic standard they expect for their degree course. In the past this wasn't necessary. This is not a reflection on the students per se, but it does suggest that the standard required to get an A grade at A level has fallen.

    As for the information being easier to find - how does that help a maths student? In theory that might help in some subjects - like history - but it would be a brave person who took what they read in wikipedia as fact.


  5. "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."
    Not true.

    24.1% of people got an A which as most people take 3 exams that means that somewhere between a quarter and a more sensible 8% of papers get an A. The exact percentage being determined by how many get 2As or 3As or more which we don't know.

  6. Universities and employers are often claiming that students are coming to them without basic skills.

    Quite sensibly for a lot of subjects A-levels moved away from essay-type exams to a mixed approach of practical and/or short-answer questions. This has however meant that a lot of people without the skills to write essays or organise their thoughts in that way are getting to higher education where it's more important. This would account for some of the increase in pass rates and some of it's fair. Why does a Chemistry student need to write exams?

    The idea of higher education being discriminatory is bonkers. If the entry criteria are objective rather than subjective then it's a meritocracy, not a club for 'the elite'.

  7. ...hmm. maybe the marking criteria has changed - in the early nineties, I believe there was a forced allocation of marks, so only the top 5% of any one year got a mark, whilst these days the grades change at fixed points? Is that right? Maybe no one's getting smarter and they've just changed how they mark. darned unfair though.

  8. Hmmm...but here's an interesting discrepancy in your argument. It wasn't that you weren't smart enough to get a A grade in English. It was that your teacher was crap and didn't teach the subject well enough to have you grasp it.

    I don't know what the school systems are like in Britain, but here in the US, those whose parents can afford schools that actually provide text books and reasonably sized classes...or breakfast and lunch for that matter, do so much better on the standardized tests such as the SAT or the ACT.

    The question becomes, how do we determine between native intelligence and lack of opportunity? And how do we provide the same quality education to everybody...or do we simply decide that that's not a right that everybody has (I'm not talking university here, I'm talking remedial education.).

  9. Don't worry, the "meritocratic" Labour government has rectified this imbalance with their tuition fees farrago. Soon only the 'right' people will be allowed to go to university again, so it'll be just like it was before the 70s. No longer shall our hallowed institutions be marred by the clever working classes, with their glottal stops and discomfiting political opinions. Bravo, Tony, old chap.

    *rants on for another 4 hours*

  10. ... I should probably remind readers at this point that I am the product of a privileged education, having attended a well-known british public school (albeit as a scholar).

    Foxy's right though. Higher Education should be available to all those bright enough to attend, regardless of their background or financial status.


  11. I'm common as a Burberry dog jacket, but at least I had the decency to get an A for my English A-level. You ghastly underachiever.

    Joking aside, if I'd been born 10 years later, I wouldn't have been able to go to university at all. Or rather I would've left with even more debt than I actually did, probably £30k or more. People from poorer backgrounds are much more debt averse, it's frightening to run up a five figure sum if your parents earned less than that in a year. The nation is going to be split between David Camerons and Jade Goodys, with no other options.

  12. ... and I probably would have done, thanks to the fact that my dad (the son of a publican from the plymouth naval docks) worked his socks off to get to medical school and to enter the comfortable middle classes as a doctor.

    I used to get infuriated by the people at my school, the classic public school types of legend who would never do any work, and who still swanned off to university to read something or other, just because it's what they did before they went to work for daddy's firm. I hated the fact that they took the piss out of me because I wanted to learn and because I was a scholar in the top sets and wasn't in the rugby team.

    That's one of the reasons I went to Warwick, actually. It's a good course, but not many of went there... preferring to be ushered into Oxbridge with open arms....

    But yes, I am well aware of how lucky I was to leave university without any debt.


  13. Warwick's second tier posh, like Bristol or St Andrews. Isn't it? A good reputation without being too old boys-y. No?

    I wouldn't know obviously, I got a 3rd from the University of North Peckham [etc]

    *does the Lambeth walk in chimney sweep costume, while eating whelks from a polystyrene cup*

    Oh, this comedy clash of classes could run and run. We should polish it into a 45 min show and take it to Edinburgh.

  14. one of my best mates at university was a mature student (well, he was 6 or 7 years older than me) and before he university, he used to paint warships.

    no really.

    *swigs champagne and totters off to the club in search of a cigar*


  15. "I'm common as a Burberry dog jacket"
    Foxy, I think I love you :-)

    You are absolutely right, New Labour seems to have done a stunning job of returning our Higher Education system to the dark ages.

    To make a policy statement that 50% of students should go to university is a bit nuts in itself as the academic nature of bachelor degrees (of course there is no alternative any more) doesn't suit anyone. However, to push for that and not provide the money to support those extra students was bound to lead to this sort of two-tier farce. It's not rocket science!

  16. I did pretty badly in my A-levels. So badly in fact that I had to go to the local uni and plead to be let in.

    It was either that or be disowned by my parents for being an unmitigating failure.

    Asking around my workplace, I find that of the 3 people in, one was an international student who had to pay around £10k to study in London, one got 3 Bs and is now studying Computer Science (he's on work placement bless) and the last got 4 As and a B, and went to Oxford.

    Dwelling upon this information, I'm not entirely sure that A-levels mean anything except to determine who should go to University...

    Anyway, I'll just shuffle off and hang my head in shameful silence.

  17. Ah, this is one of my pet gripes. I did Scottish Highers which are similar to A Levels but are generally studied over one year rather than two. If I had taken these exams a couple of years later, I could have done half the work at home, particularly in subjects such as English, and wouldn't have been required to write in or translate from French or German. I definitely believe students today have it much easier and that the pressure to perform well in exams is less than in my day.

    My last job was as marketing officer for a university and am astounded by the complete neeps that gain entry!

  18. Hey Crucifer – I don’t mean to make anyone feel down on themselves over their exam results. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it bears repeating. Success in A-levels does not necessarily how bright you are. My elder brother failed two of his three a-levels and scraped through them on a retake and went to Cardiff University to study biology. He got a first, was invited to do a PhD at Cambridge and went on into post-doctoral research. He found his niche and is now well renowned within his field – he just wasn’t good at exams.

    How many people like him don’t find their niche and are prematurely branded as failures?

    And in my experience, A-Level results are a bit like degree results: no one gives a monkeys about what you got once you have moved onto the next thing. My A-Levels got me onto my degree which got me onto my masters which qualified me for my job (in that you had to be a graduate, not that a masters in medieval history was vital for a job in IT).

  19. I quite fancy being in that intellectual elite thing you mentioned. Does it count against my application that I had to phone my mum to ask her what I got in my A-Levels because I couldn't remember?

    (Maybe it's a genetic weakness; she couldn't remember either)