What is the point of nine grade 'A's at A-level?

'They are now far too blunt a tool and don't measure what we expect them to measure'
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The Independent Online

I can't remember my A-levels. I can remember their contents - God, slogging through Madame Bovary and Much Ado About Nothing and Monteverdi's madrigals - and I can remember what grades I got. But actually going into the exam room, the summer of 1983, and starting to harmonize a Bach chorale or translate a passage of Evelyn Waugh into French; it must have happened, but I have no direct memory of it at all.

I can't remember my A-levels. I can remember their contents - God, slogging through Madame Bovary and Much Ado About Nothing and Monteverdi's madrigals - and I can remember what grades I got. But actually going into the exam room, the summer of 1983, and starting to harmonize a Bach chorale or translate a passage of Evelyn Waugh into French; it must have happened, but I have no direct memory of it at all.

The thing about qualifications is that absolutely nobody cares about them five minutes after the fact. They are supremely irrelevant to real intellectual achievement; a remarkable intelligence is quite as likely to get a Third, like WH Auden, as a First, like Louis Macniece. Straight As on an exam certificate is much more likely, in fact, to indicate a strong, conventional mind than any capacity for original thinking, and anyone with any sense will quickly forget about them, and turn to the real business of work.

A-level pass rates have been rising steadily for years now, culminating in a situation where it is quite commonplace to be awarded five A-grades, and there are occasional sightings of six or even more. One lunatic, yesterday, was reported as having achieved nine A-grades, though what the point of that is when Oxford will let you in with two if they want you, God only knows. More people are achieving A-grades than ever before; more A-levels are attainable, higher grades are more widely achieved.

There are two readings of this situations. One is the optimist's view, that standards are improving, that levels of education are much better than they were, so of course people are doing better. The other is that exams are getting easier, and people who even 10 years ago would have struggled to get a C are walking out with qualifications which could not be improved upon.

Frankly, it's extremely difficult to believe in the possibility of year-on-year improvement in educational achievement.

It might happen slowly and erratically, over decades, but it's perfectly incredible to think that the kind of steady improvement over such a short period could possibly occur without some kind of lowering of standards.

The last time this happened, and I said something like this, a furious child wrote to me to say that she didn't believe that standards had lowered for the simple reason that she'd worked very hard and got four A-grades, thank you very much.

I puzzled over her logic, but in the end, it rather tended to prove my point that some fairly thick people were doing very well out of the system.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that the intellectual level of people leaving school is much lower than it was. University science departments find themselves obliged to run classes in elementary calculus. And distinguished and ancient Modern Languages departments now resound, if you believe some reports, to the choral chanting of French verbs. The numbers taking modern languages, which are perceived as hard work, are in free fall; and, cruelly, no one points out the essential difference in value between an A-level in German and one in a fatuous idiocy such as Media Studies.

Standards, in short, may very well be falling. But the point is that we have no way of knowing, since the standard of measurement is being altered at the same time. Twenty years ago, it would have been literally inconceivable that an individual should take six A-levels, let alone nine.

When the scope of A-levels is shrinking, how should we know what on earth is happening to intellectual standards?

But the main point of the shift in A-levels is not that they are becoming simpler, in an "All Shall Have Prizes" mentality. The point is that they are now far too blunt a tool, and don't measure what we expect them to measure. Above a certain point, everyone will get an A, and that is that. That is basically an abdication of responsibility; because no one can doubt that behind the glowing A, a huge range of abilities is being shielded. Some students who got an A this week are as clever as any 18-year-old ever was; others are, frankly, not that bright at all.

When Laura Spence, the highly able student who was turned down by Oxford, got five A-grades this week, everybody drew a certain conclusion, but it was an incorrect one. The conclusion was that Oxford was wrong and made a mistake. I don't see it.

Almost certainly, everybody who applies to read medicine at Oxford will now get four or five A-grades at A-level. But the measure of the top grade at A-level is now such a broad one that even that cannot guarantee the sort of intellectual ability Oxford can demand. Responsibility falls on the university to try and winnow out the original minds from the dutiful hard workers, all turning up clutching exactly the same qualifications.

It's fairly clear what the underlying tactic of education policy is in this area. A-levels were long criticised for producing too narrow a mind, too early. If you simplify each individual A-level, then three A-grades will become ordinary; then four, then five. And then, through the back door, you will find yourself with a baccalaureate system, where anyone able takes six separate subjects.

Personally, I regret that; I think I benefited a great deal through the detailed and demanding analysis which A-levels, 20 years ago, offered. But if the shift to a broader spread of subjects for able pupils is consciously taking place, then at the very least, we should be told about it.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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