Skyler Ver Bruggen: A-level toil that goes unrecognised

Exceptional grades have become the standard requirement
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The Independent Online

Stomach cramps, piles, chronic fatigue, panic attacks, migraines, throwing up, eating disorders... No, not the latest symptoms of swine flu, but afflictions induced by the pressure of taking A-levels. What's more, these sufferers are among those in that "inflated" group receiving three A grades. If this is what it takes to get those As then why as, one headline put it, are the exams so easy that a monkey could do them?

If we are to believe the statistics, then the rising percentage of high achievers can mean only one thing: that the exams are getting easier. And yet, despite the authority of various experts, their experience of A-levels is often confined to a less competitive era. I took the exams this summer and, take it from me, they are tough.

If you are lucky enough to be predicted three A grades then you must carry the pressure that comes with it. Each year with the increasing number of A's, the expectations grow. "Top" students are pushed to do four or five subjects by schools who wish to distinguish themselves in the league tables and land top university places.

With each subject comes a considerable work load. By the end of the course I thought nothing of staying up till three in the morning to write an A grade essay. But much of this toil goes unrecognised. Our grades were decided in the space of several hours, sitting in an over-heated room at the hottest time of the year.

There was a time when an offer from Oxbridge only required minimum grades. Now, increased numbers of university applicants have driven grade requirements up. As the focus on A grades is encroaching from all sides (the media and education) we are faced with a new pressure: exceptional grades have become the standard requirement for higher education.

With even junior positions in the workplace requiring a degree, you start to feel that it is not only your university place which is being decided in those few hours, but your life. Suddenly I am judging myself by the scale of the Universal Mark Scheme! And if the media tells me that "everyone" is getting A's, then the result of a bad day can become a judgement on my intelligence.

The problem with A-levels is not that they have become easier but that they are testing different skills. Rather than testing a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, exam technique is assessed.

I discovered this after giving a French past paper to my bilingual exchange in the hope of getting full marks. Instead she only achieved a B. Those long answers she had written didn't contain the key words that the mark scheme was looking for. In the interests of a standardised form of assessment we are taught to "play the game". So with each year and yet another past paper published, the rules of that game become more apparent and more easily exploited.

We are working harder than ever as the bar is raised by the very people who seem to be criticising the results. While ostensibly successful, we – the students – are victims of the system so long as our efforts go unrecognised: stomach cramps, piles, chronic fatigue...

Skyler Ver Bruggen was a pupil at Latymer Upper School in west London