Of course, standards in schools are falling. And thank heavens for that

Share

'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 education

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?