Thursday 19 August 2010

The long wait is over

So the long wait is over. A-Level results are out. Congratulations if you have achieved your goals. And good luck if you are still waiting to hear about your post-A-Level destiny.

Two over-riding themes emerge from this year’s bunch of results: the ever-improving grades achieved (including the awarding of the new A* grade this year) and the shortage of university places available for this year’s cohort, both of which are cited as evidence of at best a sign of desperate times, at worst a failed education system.

What of the first, the notion commonly referred to as ‘Grade Inflation’? (I’ll look at university places in my next post).

The statistics

First, the statistics. Well, it was another record-breaking year of results. One in 12 A-level exams (8%) has been awarded the new A* grade (which, we believe is given to those who gain roughly 90% in their exams).

27% of entries have gained an A or A* grade and this rate is currently increasing at about 1% each year (26% achieved grade A last year, 25% the year before). The overall pass rate rose for the 28th year in a row, with 97.6% of entries gaining an E or above, up from 97.5% in 2009.


In my mind, a number of issues are at play here.

Firstly, let’s give some credit to the students. They are working harder, becoming more organised and better mentally equipped. They support each other, get help from parents and sometimes personal tutors. The web and great textbooks also help.

Secondly, don’t forget the teachers. Teaching methods are improving and this is assisted by new developments in the classroom, such as interactive whiteboards, a whole host of educational websites, and considerable expertise in these resources, as well as in the subject matter. Well done teachers.

There has also been some talk, particularly in these competitive times, of pupils choosing ‘softer’ subjects, in which they are more likely to rack up the number of A-Level points to move on to their institution of choice.

But I don’t think this is the end of the story.

As I’ve hinted already, there’s fierce competition out there. Pupils are realising that it’s a battle out there, and the best university places, or the best jobs, come from good grades. They see the incentives and they are prepared to work to get the rewards.

But I’m going to highlight one more factor, which I haven’t heard mentioned in the debate so far. I have done a lot of work for the exam boards over the years. Edexcel’s mathematics A-Level provides good, challenging questions, in about 12 different maths modules. The questions are quality-controlled, the examiners are tested, their work is scrutinised. In turn, the examiners’ supervisors are put through a rigorous qualification and testing procedure. The planning and the chain of command are almost militaristic.

But – and here’s the point – the exam papers are not necessarily too easy, they are too samey. Year after year, the question papers feature questions from the same topics, with only the numbers changing, the ordering of the parts or the words changed to alter the subject of the question. There is no imagination required to solve some of this stuff. Learn the technique and you know how to pass the exam. The teachers know this and a thorough analysis of the last 5 years’ past papers give them all the teaching material they need to ensure a good bunch of grades from their class.

It’s only exams like Cambridge University's STEP papers and the Advanced Extension Award that really test the imagination, the inventiveness of our pupils.

In my mind, this is the way forward. Forget A* grades, A** grades, ad infinitum. Let’s change the exams. Edexcel and the other exam boards should put as much effort into devising a truly challenging set of exam papers each year as they do into ensuring a fair and unbiased system (which is, of course, also very important). Perhaps a little adjusting of the syllabus would be necessary.

The truly outstanding pupils would shine. An A grade at A-Level would be a true indication of excellence, one that would make us proud of the UK’s education system again.

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