We don’t need no grade inflation

Following Gove’s A-level blast, a sixth-form teacher lifts the lid on the cynical, ‘teach to the test’ reality of UK schools.

Jonathan Hartford

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Topics Politics

In a letter to school-exam regulator Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation), Michael Gove, the UK education secretary, has proposed to make A-levels more rigorous by giving elite universities control over the content of courses and exams. Here a new A-level teacher, writing for spiked under a pseudonym, thinks Gove has raised an important problem, but his answer is way off the mark.

In 2011, the A-level pass rate was 97.8 per cent. Contrast that to 30 years ago, when only 62 per cent of A-level students passed at all. In 1982, achieving an ‘A’ grade marked you out as one of the top nine per cent of examinees. But by 2011, a remarkable 27 per cent of students were achieving ‘A’ grades. Some have put these remarkable improvements down to better teaching and better-informed students. But the vast majority of teachers know what the data really proves: that results have improved because A-levels have become far less intellectually demanding. Indeed, when the think tank Civitas conducted a survey of A-level teachers in 2009, they were unable to find a single respondent who thought A-level results were improving because their students were more able.

According to Gove’s letter to Ofqual, ‘university academics tell me that A-levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of an undergraduate degree’. Gove’s focus on A-levels as a preparation for university expresses the extent to which, even when attempting to redress a serious concern about the quality of education in the UK, the Lib-Con government follows in the footsteps of New Labour: it can only make sense of the quality of education as part of a means-to-an-end calculus. Nonetheless, an 18-month survey by Cambridge Assessment found that 60 per cent of UK universities run ‘catch-up’ classes for first-year students coming from A-levels, suggesting that even by such limited instrumentalist criteria, A-levels are falling very far short.

Gove’s suggestion is that responsibility for setting the content of A-level courses should be taken out of the control of exam boards and given to Russell Group universities. In reference to concerns about an increasingly politicised education system in the UK, Gove wrote to Ofqual that it is ‘more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment. I am particularly keen that universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed.’

Having recently joined the A-level teaching profession, the comparison between the course I now teach and the course I studied as a sixth-form student 20 years ago is striking. The content has narrowed and the exams have become increasingly predictable. Since the year 2000, courses are presented in a modular format that requires students to learn pre-packaged chunks of information, sit an exam, and then quickly forget that chunk before moving on to the next. The current system, fully endorsed by UCAS – the organisation that manages university applications – allows students to sit and resit modular exams as frequently as they like until they achieve the grade they feel they deserve. There is no expectation that students might read around their subject area. Indeed, if teachers are well trained in the new methods of A-level assessment, as I have been, there is very little need for students to go even as far as reading the set textbook.

From my first days in front of a class last September, I have started each lesson on Monday writing a past-paper question on the smart board, and organised the week’s teaching around the principle that everyone in the class should be able to answer the question by Friday. To assist those less able students, I write essay plans on the board for them to copy. To give the more able a chance of achieving an A*, I circulate model A*-grade answers with key points marked in bold.

If my experience of what is expected of an A-level teacher is in any way representative – and all the evidence suggests that it is – ‘teaching to the test’ is not a creeping trend, but the key learning outcome of each and every lesson.

Early in the year I was struck by the extent to which most of the students in my class, even though they knew very little of relevance to the subject, had made sure they fully understood the marking specification the examiners would be using. At the end of a week studying electoral systems, I set the class an essay as homework: ‘To what extent does the First Past the Post electoral system produce representative government in UK General Elections? [25 marks].’

‘But Sir’, one of the students complained, ‘you haven’t taught us enough to answer this question’. A 25-mark essay, I was reminded, requires an answer that outlines both sides of the argument, with marks awarded for A01: Knowledge and Understanding (up to eight marks), A02: Intellectual Skills (up to nine marks) and A03: Communication and Coherence (up to eight marks). In the preceding week, I had gone over key features of a range of different electoral systems, assessing their relative strengths and weaknesses according to a range of different criteria we might use to judge and compare different systems of democracy. But I had made very clear that whatever potential benefits there are to First Past the Post, its results are never a representative reflection of votes cast for different political parties. ‘If you’ve only given us the arguments and evidence to suggest FPTP is unrepresentative, we can’t get more than 50 per cent for this question’, the student concluded. I decided she was probably right, so I decided to set them a different question.

Any romantic notion I might have entertained about inspiring young minds with a passion for knowledge and understanding was quickly whipped out once I learned that ‘Knowledge and Understanding’ is only worth eight marks of a 25-mark essay answer. The strategy used to get these eight points is for students to have to memorise and learn to regurgitate four points on one side of the argument and four points on the other.

Gove’s recognition that there is something deeply wrong with the A-Level system is a very welcome first step from the minister responsible for education in the UK. His idea that if the problem is modularity and an increasing pressure to ‘teach to the test’, one solution – to take the design of the syllabus away from exam boards and give it to academics at top universities who can design a more intellectually challenging course with less predictable exams – seems logical.

However, we should remind ourselves that problems such as grade inflation, modularisation, and even teaching to the test, are not peculiar problems for A-level students and teachers, but problems which afflict the system of education from early years to university degree. It seems unlikely that simply putting university academics in charge of the syllabus will make a significant difference.

Universities, including elite Russell Group universities, are themselves open to accusations of grade inflation. Since 1995, the number of first-class degrees awarded by UK universities has increased by an incredible 216.8 per cent; in the period from 2002 to 2011, first-class degrees more than doubled, from 26,100 to 53,215. Many critics, including numerous academics, have raised concerns that the intellectual demands placed upon their students, including the requirements for independent learning and critical thinking, both of which Gove wants to see more of in A-level syllabuses, are missing from their degree courses.

The problem with A-levels is not a problem of who oversees the content of the course, or even how the syllabus is examined. Getting rid of modular assessments, and putting a halt to the culture of constant resits, are certainly good ideas. Charging someone with improving the overall intellectual content of the syllabus is also sensible. But none of these managerial proposals are likely to be effective without a more serious, and far more difficult, bit of soul searching about what kind of education system we think teenagers in the UK should be offered.

My own suggestion would be that we might consider putting more faith in teachers to teach the subjects they have a passion for, rather than encouraging them to teach pre-packaged exam answers. That would certainly require a very different kind of A-level content and exam structure. We would also have to accept that a good number of students really ought not to pass their exams, and only a small minority should expect to achieve the highest grades.

Any such fundamental reassessment of what we want from a twenty-first-century education system will fail, however, if the focus remains on the system of accreditation rather than the deeper question of what kind of knowledge we think young people ought to develop.

Jonathan Hartford is a teacher based near London.

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