Exam failures

A-level students deserve a challenging education, not a patronising pat on the back.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

It’s been another bumper year for British A-levels. The pass rate has risen for the twenty-second consecutive year, now reaching 95.4 percent. The proportion of students getting A grades is up by 0.9 percentage points to 21.6 percent (1). And the number of proposed new reforms to the qualifications system is currently running at about one per day.

The old debate about whether the trend towards a 100 percent pass rate shows that exams are getting easier, or that students are getting cleverer, is now seen as rather passé. The fashion today is to garnish this discussion with a relentless churn of proposed reform, to produce more or fewer examinations, to make these exams easier or harder, or to change the university admissions procedures.

To this end, in just the past few days, there have been calls to enable bright students to skip the GCSE usually sat at 16 and move straight on to A-level (2); to cut GCSEs ‘in half’ to allow slower learners to catch up (3); and to scrap GCSEs altogether in favour of something else (4). There have been proposals to replace the current system of university admission, whereby students choose and apply to colleges before they get their A-level results on the basis of the results that teachers expect them to achieve, with a system that allows students to apply with their A-levels already under their belt.

Following last year’s notorious A-level scandal, in which exam boards were accused of downgrading some students’ exams to avoid allegations of ‘grade inflation’, a major inquiry was launched, headed by former chief inspector of schools in England, Mike Tomlinson (5). A report produced by Tomlinson in July has recommended scrapping the whole lot, replacing both GCSE and A-level with some kind of diploma system that sounds a bit like the Baccalaureate exam studied in Europe and has been described as a ‘climbing frame’ approach (6). Confused? You’re not the only one.

This continuous meddling and muddling makes one thing crystal clear. All of those engaged in running the system of public examinations – the government, regulatory authorities, universities and schools – have become completely confused about the purpose of assessment and qualifications. Today’s exam system is motivated by political targets and explicitly therapeutic goals. What it has to do with education is anybody’s guess.

Take the debate about the pass rate. When the A-level, once seen as the ‘gold standard’ of educational qualification, is passed by nearly all those who sit the exams, and when one fifth of entrants emerge with top grades, it hardly seems outrageous to suggest that something strange is going on. The UK government’s view – that all this shows how much education has improved, and how much cleverer pupils are getting – is clearly nonsense. If students are getting cleverer, surely the thing to do is to raise the stakes, and push them harder?

But as the government makes clear every year, when its ministers berate critics and interviewers for doing down young people’s achievements through suggestions that their exams are too easy, its priorities are not educational ones, designed to push students to the top of their ability. Its priorities are political – ensuring that as many students as possible meet a bottom-line target. And they are therapeutic – making pupils feel good about themselves, and avoiding denting their self-esteem with the possibility of low grades or failure.

It’s not only the government playing this game. On 14 August, a spooky new coalition calling itself ‘A level of pride’, made up of representatives from business, education, local government, entertainment, politics, voluntary sector and ‘representative groups’ brought out full-page advertisements in the national press, congratulating those who received their A-level results today. (Presumably, congratulations are also extended to those who failed.) (7)

‘Congratulations, we are proud of you’, says the advert, before listing signatories including prime minister Tony Blair, various leaders of headteachers’ associations, and gay chatshow host Graham Norton. As if getting the grades was not enough! But then, maybe that’s the point. A-level students aren’t stupid – witnessing the inexorable rise of the pass rate, with all its connotations, and the relentless churn of reform to the exams system, they know that the former academic ‘gold standard’ is being rendered something of a joke.

The attempt by society’s great and good (and Graham Norton) to give these students an extra pat on the back shows an implicit recognition that nobody really knows what an A-level is about any more, other than something that’s just good to have. Congratulations, we are proud of you. But for what, exactly?

This patronising approach is failing students, who want more from A-levels than soppy banalities. Students who spend two extra years at school generally want to learn something from their education, and to use their qualification to get into a good university where they can learn even more. To achieve their best, they need to have high expectations of themselves and of the education system. Yet the longer they spend in education, it seems, the lower people’s expectations of these students seems to fall.

No doubt there are some very good arguments to be had about the need to reform the exam system, and the process of university admission. But every argument put forward is premised on the notion that things should be made easier and less stressful for students, preserving their self-esteem and confidence at whatever cost to their academic achievement or ability to cope with hard knocks.

So the call to allow students to apply to university after receiving their A-level grades is provoked by concern that students with low confidence might undersell themselves by applying to universities for which their actual grades go above and beyond the requirements; that the current system, which can rely quite heavily on interviews, prejudices more confident students; and that students make choices too early on about the kind of courses they want to take.

But while aspects of the university admission system are undoubtedly chaotic, there is a lot to be said for the emphasis it puts on pushing young people to make decisions, and take a leap of faith in their ability to make it into the college of their choice. By contrast, the notion that they should just wait and see what grades they get and what subjects they like, and then pootle along to university a few months later with minimal stress, turns the excitement of the admissions scrum into a plodding journey through a clearly defined life course.

The ongoing discussion about reforming the exams system is equally bereft of imagination. Take the argument that bright children should be able to skip GCSE and go straight to A-level. All this really amounts to is a recognition that GCSEs are too easy to stretch top pupils – so why not say it? And if GCSEs are so easy, why should taking these exams be seen as a burden on bright pupils, rather than something that they simply breeze through?

If things are going to be scrapped altogether, as the Tomlinson proposals suggest, why replace them with a ‘climbing frame’ of qualification, as though secondary school pupils are like little children just learning to play? At least make it an adventure playground, in which students are actively encouraged to push themselves, test themselves, and learn some initiative. Not to mention learning some knowledge – because that, in case we forget, is what education is supposed to be about.

A-level students aren’t stupid. They want more than applause from their time spent at school, and they deserve more than patronising homilies about how special they are just for having sat their exams. It’s time to stop counselling these young people, and to start challenging them instead.

Read on:

Examining the scandal, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Education

(1) A-level results break records, Angela Harrison, BBC News, 14 August 2003

(2) Pupils ‘could bypass GCSEs’, BBC News, 11 August 2003

(3) Exam expert calls for smaller GCSEs, Polly Curtis, Guardian, 12 August 2003

(4) Overhauling the exam system, BBC News, 16 July 2003

(5) Last year’s fiasco, BBC News, 14 August 2003

(6) Overhauling the exam system, BBC News, 16 July 2003

(7) A level of pride website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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