A-Levels, O-Levels, GCSEs and degradation.

by Harry on June 13, 2008

They play a great game in the UK every summer (no, not cricket, that’s far more important than a mere game). In May and June 16 and 18 year-olds take externally and anonymously graded exams (A-levels for the 18 year olds, GCSE’s for the 16 year olds), and the results come out later in the summer. In June lots of journalists write about how much easier these exams are than they used to be. (This is an especially appealing hypothesis for those of us who took O-levels before they were abolished in favour of GCSEs, and struggled to get B’s and lower, but who see our friends’ children sailing through with lots of As). When the results come out in August, the same journalists look at whether average results have gone up or down. If they have gone up, this is proof that the exams are getting easier (grade inflation); if they go down this is proof that the students are stupider or the schools are worse. This happens every year, without fail, as if no-one has noticed that it happened last year and the year before. Hence this piece from Minnette Marin.

I’m going to ignore Marin’s curious attacks on my friend John White (curious, because she seems to agree with him pretty much exactly on all the issues, so I don’t understand why she feels the need to be so hostile to him) and focus on the other things she says.

First, grade inflation.

Marin says:

Oddly enough, there are people in the education world who still deny that A-levels and GCSEs have been debased. They must be wilfully blind to the evidence; last week, for instance, many newspapers printed a comparison of an old maths O-level exam paper with the contemporary GCSE one. The fall from rigour was lamentable.

But this is not evidence of inflation or a fall from rigour. We would need to see the final, marked, papers and the grades they got, as well as a fair comparison between the various different exam boards for O-level and CSE from the past and GCSE from the present. As far as I know no-one has kept the kind of database that would allow for comparisons over time, even in a subject like maths, let alone in one like History or English in which what gets taught (and therefore what exam questions get asked) changes dramatically over time. When Alan Johnson was at the DfEE he announced plans to establish exactly such a database, but I’ve no idea whether they went anywhere, and anyway it wouldn’t have been around for long enough to establish anything interesting. If I’m wrong, and there is such a database, I’m surprised that whoever keeps it hasn’t turned up as a player in this game.

Marin does cite one anecdote.

One of the three leading universities in the country, Imperial College London, announced that in 2010 it would introduce an entrance exam for applicants because it cannot rely on A-level results. Sir Richard Sykes, the college’s rector, suggested that grade inflation in A-levels made them almost “worthless” as a way of choosing between candidates: “Everybody who applies has got three or four As.”

I’ve some sympathy for the Rector: it would be nice to have the examining boards do my work for me, too. But his complaint is not evidence that exams have gotten easier. I remember when my friends were applying to Imperial (1981) – they all had all A’s too, and some of them were rejected. Again, we’d need a longitudinal study, comparing the preparedness of the students with A’s over time. Even Imperial’s claim that they now need to give remedial classes doesn’t show that students are less well prepared. Maybe more is expected of them now than before. For all we know, Imperial College lecturers are less facile than their predecessors at teaching complex stuff to their first year students, or devote less time and energy to it because the rewards to an academic career have shifted away from quality of teaching and to quality (or perhaps just volume) of research. (Someone here can probably comment directly on this, but I seem to remember my flatmate who did go to Imperial for Maths (graduated 1984) saying a fair amount of time in the first year was spent dealing with the fact that the incoming students had been taught using two completely different curriculums, corresponding to the 2 different kinds of A-level).
Just to be clear, I’m not denying that A-levels and GCSEs have been debased: just saying that I know of no actual evidence to that effect and nor, it seems, does Marin.

Now to Marin on what universities should do.

Her claim that “it’s not the role of a university to offer remedial teaching” is wrong. I teach at a good university with reasonably high admissions standards, and in every undergraduate class I teach there are several students who are smarter than I am (mercifully, my accent and tie disguise this fact from them), but in my many years of teaching I’ve only taught one single undergraduate student who was already as good a philosopher as I was. My class taught him nothing, but the rest of the students all needed and to learn, and my job was and is to teach them. Is that remediation? If not, what is? Does Marin have some objective standard which says “unless a student can already do X, Y and Z they have no business being in college”? I doubt it. Anyway, as a college teacher my job is not to say “I will only teach students who can already do X, Y and Z” but to take the students I am given, however well prepared they are, and try to teach them how to do A, B and C. I know, furthermore, that there is not a linear relationship between the variation of the level of preparation they come in with, and the variation of the achievement they go out with. The quality of my teaching for each student is one of the factors influencing their eventual achievement (with the exception of the one aforementioned undergraduate). Neither I, nor my institution (which is, like all reputable UK Universities, publicly funded) have a right against admitting having ill-prepared students: we fulfill a mission that is given to us by the public that funds us. What I’m given depends on the mission of the University and its success in admitting students that fit that mission. Whoever we end up admitting, our job is to teach them .

Marin, perhaps, disagrees with those last three sentences, because she, perhaps, thinks that there is only one proper mission. But I don’t know what that mission is, because she says she objects to universities experimenting with social engineering:

It’s not the role of a university to experiment with social engineering, although the government forces it on them.

It’s not clear whether it’s the social engineering or the experimenting she objects to. Presumably the latter, because social engineering is what they have always done. Prior to the expansion in the 1960s they were expected to engineer the production of a scientific and technical elite (maths, physics, etc), alongside a ruling elite (PPE and cognate subjects and, of course, Classics, as Boris Johnson and J.K. Rowling can testify). The government reserved a very large public subsidy for the development of the human capital of those who were to enter this elite, and universities were a place where that prospective members were placed into an exclusive social network if they hadn’t already been placed into it by their schools. (I gather that Marin is a qualified doctor, so I’m guessing that the subsidy in her case was much larger than in mine, but I may be wrong). Since the 1960’s universities have engineer the production of a professional elite – accountants, lawyers, even businessmen and journalists – and the government has been happy to subsidise even that. The expansion was an experiment in social engineering, and one that I, like Marin, in fact feel a bit skeptical about. (Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter?,though focusing more on the Further Education than the Higher Education sector, does a great job of explaining why the demand for expansion of post-secondary education is so strong, and so hard to resist, despite being economically and socially suboptimal). Universities participated in that experiment, and if we adopted Marin’s implicit call for a massive reduction in HE, that, too, would be an experiment.

Imperial’s adoption of a separate selective examination, which Marin lauds, would itself be an experiment in social engineering, albeit one with predictable outcomes. The exam will do exactly what the Cambridge and Oxford exams used to do: favour those students who attend schools which can devote a lot of resources to prepping them for the exam and whose parents exert a lot of pressure to get them to respond to the prepping. Its true that one reason the entrance exams were abandoned was that they were thought to be unfair, but another was that the qualities needed to do well in those exams (being in the right kind of school, having the right kinds of parents) were not great predictors of academic performance once the student was actually in college. The Imperial exam will be unfair, and a poor predictor of success (unless, perhaps, Imperial devotes enormous resources to getting it exactly right, but that will take several years and is surely not the most efficient use of their resources).

Anyway, I see no reason why universities couldn’t be asked to engage in those other forms of engineering to which they are well suited. What, exactly, these are, might be disputed, and some we can only find out by experimentation. But, for example, it seems to me that providing pathways into professional life for prospective students who have real academic potential that has, for whatever reason, not shown up in A-level grades or other entrance exams is among them.



F 06.13.08 at 7:33 pm

I take exception to your paragraph about remediation. If I am to teach calculus and my students don’t know algebra, my job is impossible. I might be able to teach them the algebra required to catch up and maybe a bit of the calculus I am supposed to teach, but without a basic set of knowledge it is impossible to teach upper-level classes.

Marin may not have such a thing, but I think it’s quite important for colleges to say “unless a student can already do X, Y and Z they have no business being in college” and to properly determine X, Y, and Z. Just because she may not have such standards doesn’t mean objective standards shouldn’t exist.


Righteous Bubba 06.13.08 at 7:50 pm

What’s to be inferred when you add A* at the top of the scale because too many people are getting A?


harry b 06.13.08 at 8:11 pm

I think — like Marin, in fact — that there’s a very good case that far more 18 year olds attend college than ought to. And I agree that if you are going to teach calculus they already need to know algebra. But if not enough know algebra (there might be data on this, but my guess is that the proportion of the cohort in the UK that can do algebra has not fallen in the past 20 years) then your institution needs to teach them algebra before sending them to you to calculus.

I agree it is important to have clear standards for admission — but I don’t think these are in any sense objective. 100 years ago there were no standards above basic literacy and a very wealthy family background; 50 years ago you needed Latin and/or Greek to go to Oxbridge. These were bad standards (I presume we agree). What standards we set should depend on what we want universities to do, and what we want them to demand that schools do. But nothing is set in stone.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 06.13.08 at 9:08 pm

“The exam will do exactly what the Cambridge and Oxford exams used to do: favour those students who attend schools which can devote a lot of resources to prepping them for the exam and whose parents exert a lot of pressure to get them to respond to the prepping.”

This is anecdotal, but I remember the Cambridge exam when I took it as being exceptionally well-designed for testing being abel to think about the subject rather than just regurgition of the topic (and, being from a school which hadn’t sent anyone to Oxbridge for four years, I was terrified of the exam). So I think that coaching would have a marginal effect relative to say, more formulaic tests like the U.S. GMAT or GRE or SAT.

I can still recall a physics question on the Cambridge exam that told you to make two assumptions, and then based on results that dropped out of those assumptions, estimate the age of the universe. But to get there you had to have 2-3 conceptual insights. It was the coolest exam question I ever saw.


Peter 06.13.08 at 9:12 pm

Has climbing Mount Everest got easier over the last 55 years? The numbers of people reaching the top each year has certainly increased dramatically since 1953. But then Edmund Hillary used a cap made by his wife from an old pair of pajamas, so presumably modern climbers are better equipped than he was, and thus the task may be easier.

For both climbing mountains and doing A-level exams, Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance explains the phenomena well.


bob 06.13.08 at 9:32 pm

Oxford and Cambridge still do use exams in the selection process for a number of subjects, but these are not meant to be preppable. Of course you can, as with almost any test, game it a little, but these tests seem pretty well designed to me.

Further details at: https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/prosundergrad/applying/hat_introduction.htm


Also, there is plenty of information to back claims of grade inflation and syllabus reduction. The most obvious case is A level Maths: the exam boards quite openly removed a module’s material only a few years ago. Just compare papers from 20 years ago to what A level students do today and you will see a) considerably less content being examined b) much easier, step by step questions that. The second point is quite important, because it means that student’s mathematical facility is much reduced, even if on the face of it they have covered the same material.

As regards the Imperial issue, I thought the problem was not so much how effective A levels are as preparation (although it is an important question), but rather that they now find it extremely difficult to make admissions decisions. Even if students with straight As were being rejected twenty years ago, it’s a plain fact that far more get three As than ever used to be the case. How do you pick between candidates with identical grades. I would prefer it to be done on the basis of a well designed aptitude test than with the silly business of personal statements.


Righteous Bubba 06.13.08 at 9:38 pm


Jamie 06.13.08 at 10:25 pm

I agree with f about remediation, even though I (too) teach philosophy. Harry may be right that *if* students show up to university without knowing enough algebra to take calculus, then the university ought to teach them algebra. Even so, it shouldn’t be a university’s job to teach students algebra.
Similarly, I shouldn’t have to teach students what collections of sentences form a paragraph (I don’t have to, by the way, but colleagues at other universities do).

The SAT people go to some trouble to make tests equally difficult from year to year, by including some questions each year that don’t count but will be compared with the ‘live’ questions to see how many test-takers get them right. Those questions are then used in subsequent years. I’m sure this is not a perfect system, but is there anything comparable in the GCSEs?


dsquared 06.13.08 at 10:27 pm

Matthew Turner sorted this out ages ago; the rate of grade inflation, as measured by average UCAS points, has been no more that 2.5% pa over the last 20 years, no more than the Bank of England’s CPI infltion target. Given that there have almost certainly been productivity improvements during that time, there is just no ground for asserting material grade inflation at all.


F 06.13.08 at 10:54 pm

Much of the confusion on this topic comes from conflation or confusion of whether a given test is supposed to measure absolute or relative achievement. I was always under the impression that standardized tests, like the SAT (and presumably the A-levels) were meant to be absolute measures, hence the calibration mentioned by 8. The fact that the mean slowly rises is an indication that students really are getting better at whatever the test measures, though these effects are much smaller than what DD claims is normal (for the SAT, it is between 0.1 and 0.3% pa).

On the other hand, there is a bigger debate about whether college grades are or should be absolute or relative. I would argue that they are generally regarded as relative and that this is a good thing. In this case, the significant rise of GPAs over time is clear indication of grade inflation.


nick s 06.14.08 at 12:28 am

I remember the Cambridge exam when I took it as being exceptionally well-designed for testing being abel to think about the subject rather than just regurgition of the topic

My memory of the Oxford entrance exam is the same, and my anecdotal experience during admissions (as a runner and then a graduate managing the fortnight is that the exams-during-interviews aren’t that preppable.

Then again, I have also been privy to high table conversations between fellows who were teaching remedial calculus to first-year physics undergraduates — presumably, the same undergraduates they were responsible for admitting.


armando 06.14.08 at 1:00 am

While this is perhaps simply anecdotal, my experience is that there is an almost universal consensus amongst UK mathematicians that the level of knowledge of candidates has dropped, forcing a change in the teaching at University level. Colleagues are fairly explicit in designing courses so that students are taught what would in the past have been assumed to have been covered at school.

I realise that this issue has a lot of political baggage, but this isn’t a criticism of the students – no one denies that they work hard for their grades – and, in fact, needn’t be a strong criticism of the system either. Numeracy, after all, is something that should be more broadly present rather than the province of a few specialists.


Dave 06.14.08 at 9:21 am

If I may insert my own anecdotal experience and assert it as data, the problem I have experienced over the last 15 years of teaching university history is that students HAVE been faced with a challenging and stretching A-level syllabus, but that teachers, in fear of their jobs [and I have this word-of-mouth directly from more than one] are obliged to navigate a path for their students through that syllabus which ensures that none of them fail.

Doing so involves constructing a ‘shadow syllabus’ of essentially rote-learned material, which allows students, in assisted coursework and under exam conditions, to give the impression that they can perform the independent reflective work that the ‘real’ syllabus is designed to elicit.

Now, it is quite possible to argue that these students are taught BETTER than those of 15 or 20 years ago, but what they are being better taught to do is to pass the exam, not to acquire the independent skills of an advanced learner. However, they arrive at university under the impression that the skill-set they have is the one they need, which it isn’t.


Nick 06.14.08 at 10:45 am

#s4 & 11. That’s certainly my memory of the Cambridge entrance schol exam in the mid 70s.

It’s notable that complaints about the devaluing of A & GCSE qualifications are almost always implicitly about those obtained in the state sector. As I discovered when revisiting my former place of detention with my partner & step-daughter, the private sector still plumes itself upon what a good job it’s doing by achieving exceptionally high scores in UCAS points and grades. Not a hint of inflation or devalution there. I suspect this this entire debate has much to do with the way our two systems of education are funded & some pretty astonishingly unexamined assumptions about collectively funded resources versus individually purchased good and services. Perhaps an economist (I believe there are one or two out there) would care to comment?


bob 06.14.08 at 11:13 am

What absolute rubbish dsqaured. Comparing syllabuses and exam papers will reveal a more convincing explanation for grade inflation than increases in productivity.

I actually have recent experience of our current A level system – believe me, they are a doddle for anyone who is reasonably intelligent. I’m surprised that students are still only expected to take three subjects in year 13; it’s part time education.

@10: The A level system has undergone massive change over its lifetime, and especially so in the last ten years with the introduction of AS levels and general syllabus reduction. That is to say, I very much doubt that there is any calibration involved because there seems to be little continuity in the form and material being examined. In any case, there are a number of different exam boards that offer A levels, so there is no single unified system in place. Exam boards, I think, used to be regional, but now schools are free to pick whichever suits them best.


Sam C 06.14.08 at 2:41 pm

“However, [students] arrive at university under the impression that the skill-set they have is the one they need, which it isn’t.”

This matches my experience as a philosophy lecturer, and as director of my department’s first-year course. Our students are typically conscientious, but have learned that the way to succeed is to take careful notes and report back what the textbook and teacher said (sometimes with a final ‘my personal feeling is…’ paragraph). They lack the skills of critically reading primary texts, finding their way round a library, and arguing for a conclusion. They can be distressed or demotivated when they discover that they don’t know how to do the kind of work we expect from them. They can also be delighted when they realise that we want them to think for themselves.

I haven’t been teaching long enough to know from personal experience how much things have changed. But this does seem to suggest that schools aren’t preparing students for university-level study, or that universities are expecting too much from students. Has the school-university gap widened?


3Lllama 06.14.08 at 8:38 pm

Hold on … wouldn’t Minette Marin expect an O-level paper to be harder than its GCSE equivalent, for the simple reason that it would have been designed to test the top end of the ability range now covered by the GCSE?


Dan Simon 06.15.08 at 5:59 am

I’ve always been bothered by these debates over “breadth vs. depth” in education–that is, whether the goal of education should be to foster excellence in the few or enlightenment in the many. The two goals are entirely complementary, and most of those who treat them as in conflict are pushing a political agenda rather than an educational one.

Grade inflation and declining examination standards make it harder to cultivate excellence in the top tier of students. But the they also cheat lower-tier students, many of whom end up dialing down their effort and achievement in keeping with their perception of what’s expected of average students.

As for who’s responsible for remedial education, that’s essentially an administrative question. In America, there are numerous institutions that provide (among other things) remedial courses for students who wish to attend high-ranking colleges but lack the necessary background. Whether high-ranking institutions pitch in to fill that role instead (or as well) is hardly a matter for philosophers of education to ponder.

On the other hand, if totally unprepared and extremely well-prepared students are thrown into the same class together, then at least one set of students will be extremely ill-served, however the instructor pitches the course. That’s precisely the situation that well-calibrated grades and examinations are designed to avoid. I’d have hoped that neither Harry Brighouse nor Minette Marin would have the slightest trouble recognizing that.

I’m fond of saying that if people only treated education the way they treat things they really consider important–like, say, sports–then we’d all be in much better shape. Nobody considers the World Cup and local amateur soccer leagues to represent incompatible competing visions of soccer–they self-evidently support and complement each other. Why would world-class universities and, say, local junior colleges be any different?


Alex 06.15.08 at 6:02 pm

Seeing as the Flynn effect between 1952 and 1982 worked out to 0.7% annual gain, you’re only asking for a 1.8% productivity gain to cover the whole nut according to Matt Turner. Then you have to remember that up to the early 1980s, UK EXAMS WERE NORM REFERENCED. Caps because this takes so much beating into rightwing people. The proportion of A grades was arbitrarily fixed as the top X per cent. Therefore, you cannot make meaningful statements based on the number of As before whichever year it was; it was simply a bureaucratic construct.

And as the system had been designed in the context of an education system which didn’t send that many kids into higher education, you’ve got to assume it kept As scarce. So a significant chunk will just be the pent-up grades from before the change to criterion referencing.


Dave 06.15.08 at 6:08 pm

@19 read my comment at 13 – this is what is happening. Your statements are accurate, empirically, until the point at which you have to ask what is taught, how, and with what motivations for all parties [bearing in mind that the ‘parties’ to this process include the government, local ed. authorities, school budget holders, local and national press, with teachers, students/parents and university academics quite a long way down the pecking order.] Packing all that into some odd notion of ‘pent-up grades’ being released into the wild is just… well, alas, silly.


harry b 06.15.08 at 6:52 pm

dan — of course, everything you say there is right (apart from the arbitrary restriction on the behaviour of philosophers of education — I’m also uneasy with the football analogy because of my studious effort to avoid understanding football analogies). What we are talking about here, though, is, as far as I can tell, degrees of preparation — the students vary in how well prepared they are, but all have been exposed to a great deal of work in their field and, thanks to the National Curriculum, have probably more overlap than they had in the good old days to which people are harking back. Imperial is getting only students in the top x% of achievers (where x = some very small number like 3 or 4), and is complaining that A-level grades aren’t telling it who the top 1/2% is (or whatever). At a certain point I wonder whether the A-level system should really be designed to help out Imperial in making that judgment. And, my main point against Marin is that she is just trotting out something she has no evidence for (something I find especially irritating when done in the name of rigour): namely claiming that there is grade inflation and declining standards. If there were, it would be problematic (though not disastrous), I’d just like to see some evidence.


Anarch 06.15.08 at 10:02 pm

Asserting my own anecdote-as-data, I can definitively say that the A Level Maths and O Level/GCSE Maths got substantially easier over the period 1984 – 1994, those being the past exams my secondary school had. My understanding is that the syllabi continued to get even easier thereafter, though I have no particular understand of why as I had left the British sytem by that point.


praisegod barebones 06.16.08 at 7:45 am


I agree with a lot of what you say here (and I’m slightly sorry to see that it took 19 comments for Alex’s block capital point to be made…I think it needs to be printed in block capitals on the forehead of most education journalists at this time of year)

On the other hand, I wonder how you think Imperial should select its students if all of the following are true:

a)A-levels don’t allow it to select the top 1-2 percent

b) It’s not the job of the A-level system to do so
(so its no good pressurinsing the exam boards to discriminate more finely at the top end)

c) Any exam that Imperial came up with would either be a poor predictor of academic success or would involve a poor use of resources.

Is the answer that Imperial shouldn’t be looking to be as selective as it is? If so, that’s a point that I’ve got some sympathy with. But it looks like
that’s predicated on a view of the purpose of Higher Education which you haven’t really articulated here (although you’ve hinted at it).

There’s nothing wrong with that: its clear that Marin has a similarly unarticulated view, as does anyone who asserts that teachying certain things at university counts as ‘remedial teaching’ (and there’s a phrase whose, to my mind rather unpleasant connotations need deconstructing)

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that until we’ve got a decent idea of what universities are supposed to be doing, its absurd to make pronouncements about what teaching should be taking place in them.

And it’s absurd to take one’s view about that to be a constraint on what secondary teaching should be like: you need to start by asking what secondary education can be expected to achieve for whatever proportion of the population are going to have it before asking what universities can add to that.

(I guess these two points may be preaching to the converted, now I think about it)


armando 06.16.08 at 8:57 am

As someone who posted about the way univerities are having to adjust to A levels by teaching at an initially lower level in maths (I didn’t use the word “remedial”), I think it is important to stress that you can recognise changing, or even lowering standards while at the same time supporting the broadening of education which makes these changes necessary.

On the other hand, it can become a little frustrating that the political battle lines are so drawn as to label any observation of the changes to A levels some kind of reactionary position. I think it is absolutely right to decide what you want secondary education to achieve and go from there. However, this surely has to go hand in hand with *accurately* describing what is already being done.


Dave 06.16.08 at 9:19 am

The purpose of undergraduate teaching might simply be defined as enabling students to reach a level of achievement defined as worthy of honours grading – the 2.1, 2.2, etc. If these are fixed standards of achievement, then it is self-evident that getting students up to that standard will get harder [verging on impossible] as the level of preparation for study that such students have on entry declines [and I speak from the chalkface here [not that I’ve ever used a piece of chalk in teaching], it is declining.]

If such decline – which is happening for the complex reasons I’ve discussed above – is not halted, indeed reversed, then either one must expect universities to cram in more teaching [and more significantly the students, under a growing burden of debt and employment, more learning]; or one must presumably be willing to see the level of ‘output’, the quality of learning embodied in the final degree, go down.

Cramming in more teaching AT THE SAME TIME as more students [the continuing goal of HMG] would require either significant new investments, or a miracle. My suspicion in that it is the other choice, deterioration of output, that we are being encouraged to settle for by default.


Robert Hanks 06.16.08 at 1:20 pm

There was a bogus scandal in the press a few months ago about the fact that British universities are now teaching remedial classes in essay-writing: according to a professor of English Literature I know, what has changed is not the proportion of students unable to write essays, but the obligation placed on universities to do something about it.

But the crucial point here is 17: O-levels were designed to measure the abilities of a small proportion of the population. That doesn’t account for rising pass-rates since GCSEs were introduced, of course; but the late Ted Wragg made an important point here: children today are, in general, worked harder than their parents were, they have more practice in sitting tests, and teaching is geared more to exams. What would be surprising is if results weren’t improving.

24: I don’t think the problem is that any observation of changes to A-levels is misread as a reactionary position; the problem is, rather, that reactionaries insist on taking changes to A-levels as confirmation that they’re right.


Great Zamfir 06.16.08 at 3:54 pm

Re: the good entry tests for Oxbridge.

I might be mistaken here, but I was under the impression that the smart, hard-to-prepare-for tests of Oxford and Cambridge are a problem for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, exactly because they are smart and hard to prepare for.

If they were simply cramming tests about preassigned subjects, smart and hard-working kids form all backgrounds could prepare for them. But quirky, original-thought tests give a large benefit to children with Oxbridge parents and teachers, who already have a good idea how the tests will be, what kind of thinking is encouraged and who might have gotten similar tests in their schools.

Some time ago I read an interview with someone from, I think, Cambridge who replied to the question why such a high percentage of their students came from private schools. The answer was roughly “We try to select for a certain way of thinking, and apparently private schools are better at producing this”

The thing is, I thought there wasn’t much hypocrisy in the statement. They really try for good reasons to select for certain characteristics, and private schools are really good at teaching those. But the effect is that their objectively fair, smart tests are still heavily weighted towards privileged kids.


Dave 06.16.08 at 6:18 pm

@26, umm, yeah, that would be one of the definitions of ‘privileged’ – more equipment for beating the system….


Dan Simon 06.16.08 at 11:02 pm

Harry, I’m having trouble understanding your doubt as to “whether the A-level system should really be designed to help out Imperial” in distinguishing the top 1-2 percent of students from the rest. Isn’t the entire A-level system designed to help out all colleges (and presumably employers as well) in making such distinctions? Is Imperial really the only institution in the country that would benefit from a finer-grained grading system than currently exists? Or is your objection that such “elite” institutions don’t deserve the assistance that the system already happily provides for free to the more “mass”-oriented schools whose cutoff is, say, between A students and B students?


g 06.16.08 at 11:52 pm

So, who was that one undergraduate who was already as good a philosopher as Harry, and how did he do thereafter?


harry b 06.17.08 at 2:37 am

dan — I guess that a radical rethink of A-levels could do the job, and that would be fine — say, by having 12 or 15 grades, instead of just 5. The problem then would be that people would (reasonably enough) have lots of worries about the accuracy of the grading. And it has turned out to be immensely difficult to reform A-levels for political reasons (the same people who whine about grade inflation for which, I remind you, they provide no evidence, whine about any attempts to change them). Maybe one of the issues is just that A-levels were designed to do something very different from what they are now expected to do. Originally, and until not very long ago, helping universities decide whom to admit was a rather small part of their role — they were more important for employers. And, of course, until recently, relatively few 18 year olds went to college, and the range of institutions was less diverse. I don’t object elite institutions (I attended one myself) and don’t object to public support for them, but I’m sceptical of designing A-levels in a way that helps all of them in all the ways they want. (Like Marin, I suspect, I think O-levels were more valuable than A-levels for the admissions role in the first place, though I only have anecdotes to support that). I agree with all of #23 — and don’t have a well-worked out view of what universities are for, just some scattered thoughts. I’m not sure anyone has a well-worked out plausible view of what universities should do in an age of mass HE (hence my reference to Wolf, whose skepticism about the value of mass HE I share).

g – he’s a philosophy professor at a top-ten Leiter school. My main contribution to the field was not putting him off philosophy when I taught him.


harry b 06.17.08 at 1:14 pm

just to add — thanks, folks, for the really useful discussion. I’ve learned a lot (which may not be the point, but its good enough for me).


Righteous Bubba 06.17.08 at 5:32 pm

From The Guardian:

Yet how many people know what proportion of all 17- to 18-year-olds actually achieve three grade As at A-level? Test yourself, you may be surprised. Is it a) 25% b) 20% or c) 15%?

In fact, it’s none of these. The answer is 4%. Yes, only 26,000 out of an age cohort of around 600,000 students achieve three grade As at A-level.

Moreover, from this September, A-levels are being reformed and a new A* grade is coming in for candidates achieving more than 90% in at least two units. It is estimated that only 3,000 students will get three A* grades. Put another way, that is 0.5% of the cohort.


Dave 06.17.08 at 6:03 pm

Still doesn’t matter how many or few, or anything else quantitative, if the bulk of people feeding through into universities are critically unprepared for the experience…. And I mean socio-culturally, as well as purely academically – they are still children, when it comes to taking responsibility for their own output, though they pretend to be adults when it comes to their input, notably of alcohol. Seems to take about a year for them to realise that they don’t HAVE to be legless five or six nights a week…


Righteous Bubba 06.17.08 at 6:08 pm

Still doesn’t matter how many or few, or anything else quantitative, if the bulk of people feeding through into universities are critically unprepared for the experience…

That’s true, but the Richard Sykes argument above is demolished (if, as I read it, it’s not about quality but quantity).


a comment 06.17.08 at 9:44 pm

I’m not sure where the Guardian is getting that 4% stat from. In the 2005/6 round of exams 10.7% of A level candidates achieved 3 As or more at A level. It’s all here:http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000703/SFR02-2007-rev.pdf

The 4% figure comes from the same set of statistics, but it’s actually the figure for all 17 year olds (not just A level candidates). I’ve been confused about these conflicting figures that keep popping up, but now it’s settled.


a comment 06.17.08 at 9:47 pm

Reading that piece again, Baker knows what he’s doing. He’s being deliberately misleading.


Clare 06.18.08 at 4:59 am

Two thoughts. Doesn’t every generation complain about declining educational and/or moral standards? By this reckoning we should all be drooling turnips by now. Second, I don’t mind that some students — okay, quite a lot — come to my university relatively unprepared for college work. What I do object to is their stolid refusal to admit that they stand in need of improvement.


Righteous Bubba 06.18.08 at 6:15 am

Reading that piece again, Baker knows what he’s doing. He’s being deliberately misleading.

That seems correct to me, however we have, with the non-misleading figure, say around 75000 students with three As. Using my same half-assed math we get 9000 students with three A* grades when the new mark shows up. These numbers don’t seem unmanageable from an admissions perspective and the Sykes argument remains weak.


Chris 06.18.08 at 6:33 am

As a one-time tertiary selection officer, I knew what my duty was; our ideal entrant was someone who required no input whatever from the university to pass the exams and score a degree, and we took the students who came closest to the ideal. I can’t see the point made by some comments earlier that tried to separate remediation, which wasn’t the job of the university, from teaching, which was. It’s all work, and none of it’s research, and academics don’t want to do it, any of it. Universities want to select exactly the people who need them least, (or, rather, they want someone else to do it for them).


Dr Zen 06.18.08 at 10:55 am

My understanding is that they used to be relative and switched to absolute ranks. In old system, you could not inflate grades, obviously. There would be the same percentage of A grades every year.


Dave 06.18.08 at 11:36 am

@41, yeah, in the same way that a driving instructor prefers students who have some spatial awareness… There’s almost no limit to how hard and far a tutor can push a good student, and in most cases I’ve experienced, almost no limit to how much effort tutors will put in to do so. It’s the ones who not only can’t, but won’t, be pushed, pulled, or otherwise progressed in any sense that make life difficult. Sure, some of these were always there, but in the past they tended to know they were being lazy. Over the last decade or two, with the changes in school practices, they can’t even see that they’re not with the programme.


Dave 06.18.08 at 11:37 am

sorry, that was replying to 40, not 41.


Mr Duncan 06.19.08 at 3:05 am

A* must be the A that results from performance-enhancing drugs.

Comments on this entry are closed.