Friday, 21 August 2009

Am I prescient, or what?

Yesterday my heading was "Best A level results ever?" So now that I have actually read the figures - guess what? They really are the best A level results ever. Am I prescient, or what?

Every year a bigger percentage of the pupils who are taking A levels pass. Every year, without fail, there are concerns raised about "grade inflation", and about how a reform of the system might be necessary. This is now such a regular thing, a failure for it to happen might seem like an indication that the world is coming to an end. Of course, this year is no different from previous ones. However, at some point there has to be a break in the trend, or else the pass rate will necessarily hit 100%, and then maybe the world will come to an end. Every year there are concerns about how it is perilously close to 100% already.Now it is at 97.5% meaning that only 2.5% of the people who took an A level failed to pass it. 'I passed an A level' is getting close to synonymous with 'I took an A level'.

How does this happen, year after year? Could it be that pupils who lack the ability to pass an A level are being steered away from them? I find it hard to reconcile this possibility with the fact that more pupils are taking A levels than ever before, both in absolute numerical terms and as a percentage of the school population.So could it be that pupils are being steered to "softer" A levels (see Matthew's comments from Tuesday's blog)? Maybe.

Is it that pupils are smarter now? I don't want to dampen the enthusiasm of anyone who is currently celebrating a good result, but I don't think pupils have become all that much smarter. Now 26.7% get the top grade. That is, coincidentally, exactly three times the 8.9% who got grade A's in 1970. I don't think that there are three times as many pupils who are 'grade A material' than there were in 1970.

This week teachers have a duty to support their pupils. I like to give praise whenever I can. It does good, and it helps build relationships. When it comes to telling 16 or 18 year olds how they have done in GCSEs and A levels, the tendency is to praise. You may send cards congratulating teenagers that you know. Teachers deal with pupils on a daily basis. I have met them at many parent teacher evenings and the tendency is for them to talk about something good, then something that needs improving, then something good. This is how it should be. But there has to be some way of providing praise and moral support without doling out three times as many grade A's as in 1970.

The downside of this exam grade profligacy is that it leaves universities and prospective employers with no way of properly grading their intake (see Matthew's comments again). It also devalues the achievements of those who took and passed their O or A levels back in the 70's.

Change the world.


  1. In years gone by, or better known as the 1970s in my case, unless your A level was a C or above, it wasn't worth considering. I took 3 in 1978 and only passed one, but with an E grade, these days even with that low result a student would be urged to consider full-time further education.
    I did get a degree, much later on, with lots of hard work.

    However there are students who do get A grades across the board, with plenty of hard work, and go on to University getting high grades in sciences, but these days nothing is ever said about them.

  2. If you want the cream you take of the very top of the bottle. That was before homogenisation of milk became the norm. In effect the educational exam system has been homogenised. No-one must fail. All the milk has to be creamy.
    The solution to the 'pass mark' is to have a baseline for each pass grade. I'm sure there's a fancy word for the system.
    A rough example would be:
    Top 5% A Credit
    Next 20 A
    Next 20 B
    Next 20 C
    The rest FAIL.