An ‘A’ for self-esteem

The annual row over exam results fails to address the problem.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

UK school standards minister David Miliband is right to say that the annual debate about the A-level results has become a ‘pantomime’ (1). But the people who wrote the script are those in government, who persist in peddling the make-believe that education standards are rising because young people are magically getting brighter.

This year Miliband has treated us to a preview, by launching a pre-emptive attack. Even before the A-level results are published, he denounced those naysayers who will no doubt claim that the rise in A-level passes shows that the traditional ‘gold standard’ of British education is being dumbed down. Presumably fancying himself to be the boyish hero of the performance, he has squared up to those baddies who would suggest that more people are passing A-levels with high grades because the exams have become increasingly easy to pass.

‘Boo!’ he shouts. ‘How dare you be nasty to the children!’ He niftily circumvents the real issues, to do with educational content and assessment, and instead focuses on the abstract virtues of cleverness and hard work.

The ‘myths’ that A-levels are dumbing down, he told 20 children attending a ‘gifted and talented’ summer school at Imperial College, London, are ‘myths that feed a culture where…“too clever by half” is a good put-down, where “boffin” is a term of abuse; myths that stand in the way of progress for hard-working pupils and families for whom education is a one-off chance to break into the winners’ circle; myths that put up barriers of birth not merit to the rise of hard-working pupils from all over the country’. With this very New Labour brand of pseudo-idealism and flattery, the nasty A-level doubters are booed off the stage, while all the children (and their parents) cheer.

But do they? The government’s continued insistence that (educational) things are getting better contains a peculiar contradiction, particularly at exam results time. The government seems to expect that these growing numbers of young people with their A-grade A-levels, who are supposed to be proof of the younger generation’s increasing intellect, are also dim enough to believe that standards are not falling just because the government says they are not falling.

In reality, of course, they are quite able to look at the evidence – of which, despite Miliband’s insistence to the contrary, there is plenty – and to use their common sense. It is easier to sit A-levels than ever before, easier to pass them, easier to enter university, easier to get a good classification of degree, because the content and the assessment of further and higher education has changed to make this possible (see University: Admission to what?, by Ellie Lee)

You don’t need A-levels to work out that A-levels ain’t what they used to be. The question that continues to vex, however, is what exactly are they now?

The A-level of old had a specific function: to test the minority of young people who would go on to higher education. To serve that purpose, it was educationally rigorous, academically focused and highly competitive. It suited a society that wanted a select few to pursue the life of the mind, through immersing themselves in such fusty subjects as Classics or philosophy, while everybody else did something less useless instead.

Given that we now live in a society that encourages mass higher education, and a university education can involve anything from media studies to golf studies, much is made of the outdated character of the A-level. There is no doubt that, in educational terms, a more suitable qualification could be developed for today’s higher education (although there is considerable doubt in my mind that the kind of garbled CV-building proposed by the Tomlinson reforms is it). But already, the A-level has morphed into something quite unlike its traditional meaning, to become entirely appropriate for our brainless times. It has lost all of its narrow, educational focus, and become little more than a badge of self-esteem.

For all Miliband’s blatherings about a ‘chance to break into the winners’ circle’, and the ‘barriers of birth not merit’ put in the path of hard-working pupils, it is worth remembering that not everybody in the past wanted A-levels, or even thought that they were all that important.

A-levels were the gold standard in the world of further education; outside of that world, in their own terms, they counted for very little. Yes, they were the educational reflection of an elitist society – but those who wanted to change society generally set their sights rather higher than ensuring their kids got A-levels. A qualification was a qualification, not the meaning of your life.

Now, to listen to the government go on, you could be forgiven for thinking that those previous generations were victims of a gross historic injustice. Not because they were not given access to the time and resources for further study (the real problem with the narrowly selective higher education of yesteryear) or because they were consigned to the lower echelons of society (the real problem with the unequal society that we continue to inhabit) – but because they never received a piece of paper proclaiming that society recognised their cleverness and hard work.

The government’s yearly attempts to slam down those who dare to question the educational value of today’s A-level, by bleating about how unfair such comments are to students, implies that even those teenagers who do get their A-levels are abused by the merest hint that the qualification is not really up to scratch. The official attitude is that these kids have worked hard for their qualification, and so should be made to feel good about it – whatever the qualification is worth outside of the parameters of their own self-worth. This is insulting to students, and disastrous for education.

A-level students are rightly proud of their achievements. But they are also, by and large, fairly sensible and pragmatic about them. Teenagers know that exam grades are a means to taking them wherever they want to be, not something that defines who they are. Many of these young people also know that wherever they want to be is somewhere rather better than the ragbag of educational institutions offering watered-down courses with grade-inflated qualifications that is currently on offer.

But while the government insists that it can improve education simply by repeating the mantra that things have got better and seeking to redefine ‘boffin’ as a compliment, these young people will find themselves failed by the pantomime good guys in parliament. And that’s no laughing matter.

Read on:

Exam failures, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Miliband makes strong defence of A-levels, Guardian, 17 August 2004

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Topics Politics


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