opinion: they're still too young to shoot for the stars

Click to follow
The Independent Online
There was a head of English at our school within living memory who never told her A-level students which books were on the A-level syllabus. The classes studied four Shakespeare tragedies and were then supposed to have a surprise on the examination date, when they found out on which plays the questions were set.

One can only ponder such a practice with awe. Today, their parents would probably threaten to sue and students would protest that they had "wasted" time studying plays they did not "need" and that their grades had been lowered.

The change of attitude is not restricted to A-level: the introduction of the A-starred grade at GCSE has brought new pressures to bear on younger pupils, too.

Actually, in the days of our former English teacher, grades were quite a bit lower. Such an approach to A-level was magnificent, but it was not the targeted warfare of today. A-level grades at our school, as at many, have risen markedly: the last highly selected intake of pupils under direct grant took their A-levels in 1983 and there were 56 per cent A and B passes; in 1994 there were 84 per cent. This not because examinations are easier or standards have gone down, but that teachers and students have had their minds focused considerably on the precise requirements of the syllabus.

The pressure on A-level students for high grades is unrelenting. The emerging "Ivy League" of universities asks for A-B grades as conditions of entry, whereas before only Oxford and Cambridge mentioned As. Newspapers seem only to consider A or B as worth discussing. Teachers find 12-year- olds poring over the annual printout of the school's results, calculating which subject is more likely to produce an A for them when their time comes.

Mercifully, A-level syllabuses are civilised, wide and demanding. We have two years' gestation for the course and good preparation for them cannot be narrow. The fact that we may have stepped up the number of practice essays or labour the point over fairly simple integration does not mean that the long, exploratory research essay or differential equations have been squeezed out. Education and the demands of the examination are still held in balance, but we all fear the pressures that are building down the line. The question "But is it on the syllabus?" is now coming earlier, at GCSE, where it is more dangerous.

The introduction of the A-starred grade at GCSE was a serious attack on standards and real learning. If teachers and students have to respond to the pressures to collect stars, cramming techniques at that stage will become hard to resist. Nowhere else in Europe is there an examination of this kind for 16-year-olds. That does not matter in itself, and GCSE is a lively, useful exercise, provided it is not used as a large part of the selection procedure for higher education. If A-starred grades are to be used by university selectors, then students will want them and schools will have to consider strategies for chasing them. The A-stars do not raise the standards of the very academically able students for whom they were designed: those students were already doing well and were happy to have had A grades and share them with others: differentiation came at A-level and beyond.

Sixteen-year-olds should be studying a wide range of subjects - indeed, at least the 10 laid down in 1989 in the first version of the national curriculum. That worthy ideal sank under the weight of GCSE. The additional load of the star makes even able students reckon that eight or nine subjects is enough. The diet of examinations now takes five weeks of every summer. This is being lengthened to six to make space between papers to allow the students to excel. That is another measure of the pressure being put on students, and its price is a desert in the summer term. To do very well at examinations, schools have to practise doing them: that can require two weeks of "mocks". Eight or nine weeks of a teaching year of 35 weeks could be spent by 15- and 16-year-olds in an examination hall. Ambitious students may obtain stars but they will not know more or be filled with love of learning. A-starred grades turn GCSE into a paper chase for them and devalues the grades for everyone else. Students feel cheated that somehow their B has become a C and the goalposts have been moved.

The Secretary of State has said stars are here to stay and the battle is over. The sad bit is that we never really fought the battle because the stars were brought in without consultation. Many of us could not really believe such a trivial yet destructive move was taking place. It is a shame we have all been so docile in accepting them. Stars have generally disappeared from primary class rooms: let us rub them out from GCSE.


The writer is the head of North London Collegiate School.