'We teachers don't want our students to fail, and
'We teachers don't want our students to fail, and the systems makes it easy for us to ensure they don't'
It is A-level results time again, and, unsurprisingly, more candidates than ever have passed this year.
We'll have union leaders spouting the usual nonsense about how well this reflects on teachers and students. We'll have the horrible old spoilsports saying that standards have fallen. There will be a quasi-serious debate on the issue; a government minister will comment. This is all rubbish. Standards – if by this term we mean traditional academic rigour, the exploration of ideas, and original thinking – have dropped. And everyone in the education industry knows it.
How can students fail when they can, throughout their "examinations", refer to notebooks crammed with the teacher's musings? It is very boring for me, the examiner, to read 58 times that in the candidates' considered opinion Jaws is a study of male impotence. Or to learn for the 80th time that Pulp Fiction breaks narrative boundaries. Dull, but C-grade pass.
Again, how can students fail when a fair percentage of the final mark is made up of coursework – which in the experience of many teachers is something the student does over and over again until they "bloody well get it right", or until Miss gives up and does it for them? One teacher I know says that she hates the spring term because "that's when I have to keep re-marking coursework".
We teachers don't want our students to fail, you see, and the system makes it easy for us to ensure that they don't. We're passing students at A-level who would have failed the old O-level. Coursework ensures these students gain places on A-level courses when in the old days they'd have left school at 16 and got a job in the sausage factory or a shoe shop.
Perhaps that's why it's a good thing that exams have got easier. We're not consigning huge swathes of young people to menial, dead-end, badly paid jobs for life anymore. So why not admit that standards have gone down? Of course they have, but who needs A-level history in their real job – the real job that pays well, that offers hope, that lets Student X, who 10 years ago would have been working in a trifle factory, feel good about herself? So student X will get her job – say, in marketing – because she went to university and got a degree.
And yes, of course, the value of degrees has fallen in proportion to the number of Student Xs now taking them. My friend, whom we will call Jane, works in one of the prestigious old universities. A university that has never been a poly. A university that solid middle-class girls and boys attend.
Jane, in the course of a discussion about standards, lowers her voice so that it is little more than a whisper, and says: "My Master of Arts students are much lower calibre than undergraduates were 10 years ago."
She whispers this blindingly obvious morsel of non-information because if she is overheard her job might be in jeopardy.
We're not allowed to say it. Not allowed to say that academic standards have fallen. And that the reason more students are passing GCSE and A-levels is that we – society, parents, politicians, teachers – want them to, and we have accordingly adjusted the criteria by which they are assessed.
Take the official guidelines by which the A-level media studies student of 2001 was examined: "A systematic response likely to be limited in scope. Some reference to relevant textual examples. The work will show a palpable weakness in some respects, but shows some competence and evidence of limited understanding of concepts and debates." In other words, a student whose work conformed to these criteria – "some competence", "limited understanding", "palpable weakness" – would pass the exam, and not at the lowest grade either.
But it's worth it, isn't it? It's worth it because we don't want to go back to the days when higher education was for the privileged few, those who could afford a good secondary school education, the sort of education that saved them from writing essays showing "limited competence in analysis and argument". We don't care if examinees show limited competence. They're only young, and we should give them the chance to learn. They've not had that chance yet. Not with the state our schools and colleges are in.
This is, at any rate, my experience of how things are in the world of teaching these days. Two years ago a college on the south coast gave me a part-time teaching job. The college was very short-staffed and without the funds to employ full-time teachers. I did not qualify for sickness pay, holiday pay, pension rights, or any of the other supposed benefits that a career in teaching might have been expected to provide.
Somehow or other, as well as teaching my own subject, I ended up in control of an A-level course about which I knew next to nothing. My Head of Department was well aware of the fact that I was teaching a subject of which, as I freely admitted, I was ignorant. Still, I worked hard and my students worked very hard. It is this kind of crisis in our provision of education for young people for which the exam board caters by dropping its standards.
My students passed, not well, but they passed. It wasn't their fault that they were being taught by me, someone who shuffled off home every night and crammed until the early hours in order to give them some semblance of a lesson the next day. It wasn't my fault that I was so broke, and the college so short-staffed, that I undertook a job for which I was completely unqualified. Some of these ambitious, motivated young women went on to university. I expected it of them, they expected it of themselves, and they went. I'm proud of them. I'm not proud of the college. They made me redundant three weeks before my students sat their first exam. They'd overspent on the teaching budget and needed to claw back money in any way that they could. I'm not proud that I earned £8,000 that year and then left.
Let these students of mine and the thousands of others like them pass. It reflects nothing, absolutely nothing of their potential or their possibilities. It is Student X's right to go to university. Her right to be educated to a reasonable standard. Not a brilliant standard – it's not like that any more in most higher education institutions. Just a reasonable standard. This is her right. I don't want Student X to be thought of as factory fodder ever again.
The writer is a teacher in further educationReuse content