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Home > Culture and Society

A Levels: Let the buyer beware

20 August 2004

It's A-level time again, and as surely as a million teenagers are about to get unceremoniously ditched by their boyfriend or girlfriend when they meet someone more exotic at university, it's time for the usual debate about A-levels getting easier.

The usual legion of commentators popped up: schools minister David Milliband criticising the 'national disease' of slagging improved A-level results, and CBI wonks complaining that today's youth couldn't get a fuck in a brothel with a credit card tied to their dicks. (These may not have been the exact words.) Most predictably, there were the press pundits not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Today's A-level candidates can only write in txt idiom; they actually get given the answers along with the exam paper; you can pass A-level English just by writing 'Ofelia iz, like, fit but she iz, like, a mentul bitch', etc.

However, there's definitely 'exam inflation' taking place: this year 96 per cent of A-level students passed, with 22.4 per cent of entrants getting an A grade. Overall, grades have improved steadily for 22 years in a row.

The question is why. Many explanations have been given, including more lenient marking and exam boards setting less demanding questions. But of all the possible explanations, two stand out:

- Increased use of self-assessed coursework. Coursework is a double-edged sword: in theory it rewards students who work hard consistently and is damage limitation for able students who go to pieces in exams. The downside of coursework is that it enables teachers to spoonfeed students. Anyone who's ever taken GCSEs will know that coursework can rapidly become a tedious exercise in getting your work to fit a check-list of requirements, less like learning and more like filling out a housing benefit claim. (Although for today's graduates, this may be a worthwhile skill.)

- Students are choosing easier subjects. Quite simply, certain subjects are easier than others. Recent years have seen a decrease in the numbers choosing tricky subjects like physics and languages and a massive increase in those studying 'softer' subjects like poor old media studies, psychology and business

The question is whether any of this really matters. As top gay TV historian David Starkey once said, 'There are Mickey Mouse students for whom Mickey Mouse degrees are entirely appropriate.' This is a harsh way of putting it, but does it matter that there are scores of A-level students with high grades in soft subjects?

Not everyone is cut out to be a physicist. Universities just set extra entrance tests for the most in-demand courses, and surely an A-level in business studies is better than no A-level at all? Above all, if we're going to have more people studying A-levels and going to university, then surely we're going to have to have a more diverse education system?

The only danger is that exam inflation could be setting up a lot of young people for a rather unpleasant fall. It's one thing to expand education and offer educational opportunities to more people, but it's another to create an education system that resembles a crap sixth-form college, full of aimless students just managing to scrape through weird qualifications, or changing courses as soon as they decide something is 'boring'.

In the future there could be a lot of people wishing that someone had warned them about the politically expedient A-level grades bonanza before they used their mediocre A-levels to sign up for a mediocre degree course and 20,000 debts.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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