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I wont be entering a 100 word shot but I do remember when I got my A Levels, and I worked my ass off for it, having only had a teacher for my History A Level for a year. The AS class started with a good 25 people in the group. By the second year there was five of us. At the end of the second year only 3 of us finished with the A Level.

It was rude and insulting for the Tories to moan about how easy exams were getting when myself and thousands of others had slogged away nationwide to pass the exams, which we were told were the defining exams for us.

We get all this pressure shovelled onto us to perform in exams and then when we acheive it we get told that it was supposedly "easy".

I do not believe exams have been dumbed down, I just did my A-Levels this year and my results come on Thursday.

That said, the reason why A-level's APPEAR easier is the modular course, most student will get C or above, as they can resit, in some cases two or three times the SAME module allowing for higher marks. Back in the day, you could only do these exams once, at the end of the final years.

Another consideration is the growth of the Internet, all the past papers are practically available on the Internet, and the examiners who write the papers just rehash the same questions with a few new twists.

Coursework cheating is not widespread like the media allows us to believe, to blame higher grades on coursework is laughable, it only worth 15% even if you get 100% (which I only obtained once).

I think you're going about this in the wrong way and are missing the point. The exams are no easier. What is wrong with everything is that its the exams that are cared about. The skills the CBI are complaining about are not taught anymore or are sidelined because there are too many exams and all teachers do now is train students for them. Students work as hard, are just as bright but this government and Major and Thatcher before it have placed too much emphasis on exams and have sidelined what counts.

Jaz and James: Nobody doubts that you and many thousands of others have worked very hard; but it seems inconceivable that standards have not slipped massively.

Jaz: You say that they have not been dumbed down, but then go on to list a series of reasons why, in practice, they have: modular courses, resits, prevalence of the internet, coursework.

Chris Woodhead has it spot on: Since pass rates continue to rise, either each new set of students is cleverer than the last; each new set of students is working harder than the last; teachers are teaching progressively better every year; or standards are slipping. The latter explanation is the only logical one.

"Nobody doubts that you and many thousands of others have worked very hard; but it seems inconceivable that standards have not slipped massively"

Its like saying to someone "You tried your best and youve done well, but its so much easier now, it was no suprize you did well". Thats exactly what you are saying Steve.

No one is denying that students work hard but they work no harder than their predecessors and are unlikely to be much cleverer.....unless we have gone thorugh an evolutionary step-change since the late 1980's. Hence the only plausible reason why the pass level is so high is because exams are less demanding. Sad but true. Three points exemplify this:

1. A large number of schools (mainly in the private sector) are now dumping A Levels for the IB which provides a broader-based more challenging curriculum which cannot be interfered with by politicians.

2. A number of schools have used 1980's O Level papers of the kind which I sat to rehearse today's pupils for A Levels. That makes no sense unless the rigour of a 19080's O Level is equivalent to a 2006 A Level. You can in fact still sit O Levels, but not in this country because it is illegal. They are still hugely popular in the Far East.

3. I am a fluent French speaker and have lived and worked in France. I got top grades in O, A and S Level French in the early 1980's. To do that required extensive and complex translation into and out of French, with a particular emphasis on the use of French idiom; proficiency in French conversation; and detailed study of a number of set works of French literature. In other words, you had to show a mastery of all aspects of the language and its literary heritage. Now I believe there is no significant literature content in the French A Level course and no requirement to translate into French (which is of course how you prove that you can actually use the language). The British are of course notorious for their inability to master foreign languages. Are we surprised?

I agree with Louise Bagshawe. Good on her for calling a spade a spade but as the Tories co-designed the current mess, I have no confidence in them putting it right.

It doesn’t matter if constantly improving exam results are the result of better teachers and harder working pupils or easier exams because in either event the remedy is exactly the same: make exams harder.
If teaching methods have improved so much that modern pupils are performing much better than previous generations then obviously exams need to be made harder in order to properly stretch and challenge these pupils.
If, on the other hand, exams have just been getting easier then the answer is still to make them harder, in order to redress the balance.
(End of 100 word answer, beginning of personal rant)
What is wrong with the current exam system is NOT the objective difficulty of the exams, it is the fact that with regard to the abilities of modern pupils the exams are NOT DIFFICULT ENOUGH in order to adequately distinguish between those pupils.
Its only when you acknowledge that fact that we can move onto what this debate is REALLY about – whether exams do exist to distinguish between individuals or whether they exist (as the head of the body that oversees exam standards said on the Today show yesterday) to give individuals a warm fuzzy sense of self-affirming achievement. No prizes for guessing what my opinion is.

Sorry James. I agree. It is. I appreciate that's not much fun to hear. Sadly it's true.

I think Louise made the points here very well. I'm not that long out of the School, and there always seemed something unsatisfactory about the education system. The fact that many exams were simply a memory test, English lessons didn't teach the class how to punctuate (I learnt how to in A level history), the fact that so much of the exam is now coursework which allows abuse such as copying text from the internet or getting relatives to do it, courses that allow you to retake the exam for a fee several times over (making it a wealth test, rather than an ability test). I could go on.

There must be a better system than this. Where are the vocational opportunities in school? If there were more of these, more non academic kids could be engaged with subjects and might stop bunking off. I can't help feeling the national curriculum was one of the worst things to happen in education. It feels so regimented in that it prepares kids for exams rather than the real world.

Instead of self-congratulation, the government should be apologising. Today’s students are every bit as able as previous generations and it is a great injustice to them that relentless government meddling continues to damage the credibility of exam results. An exam system that does not distinguish between students who deserve to do well and students who deserve lesser grades is an exam system that is not fit for purpose. Like all Labour governments, this Labour government fails to understand that hard work has to be rewarded.

A-Levels today are so different from those of years ago we could have arguments forever over whether they've been dumbed down or not.

But frankly, that argument misses the point. The question is not whether exams are easier than they were 20 years ago, but rather whether they are simply too easy now. Are GCSEs and A-Levels up to the task that is set to them?

Does passing a GCSE mean you have a certain recognised skill set? Are the standards relevant and worth measuring?

Does A-level provide a differentiation between pupils? Are they useful for Universities?

The answers are "No."

Employers complain that students lack basic literacy and numeracy standards that they require.

Universities are being forced to rely ever more heavily on the Personal Statement in applications. Oxford and Cambridge are restoring their own entrance exams (phased out over a decade ago). Whilst a balanced assessment is a good thing (A-levels aren't and shouldn't be the be all and end all) moving towards statements, interviews, and university-set exams will end up favouring students from private school background where the coaching for the selection process is rigorous (whereas it's non-existant in the state sector).

If we want a skilled workforce and entrance to University to be on merit, then we need a GCSE system that will deliver the skills necessary and an A-level system that can distinguish ability and aptitude. Right now, we have neither.

I think Tories just need to be honest about this one and come right out and say that exams are getting easier, that they are failing to discriminate between students at the higher levels to enable universities to make an informed selection choice, and that they are failing to equip school-leavers with the intellectual experience they will need to undertake degree studies at better universities and later in the world of work. There's the separate issue of course that too many school students are being encouraged / allowed to pursue courses which will ultimately be of little practical use in the face of shortages of students studying the harder sciences.

This has been going on for ages and it is not a party political issue - both the Tories and Labour are culpable of colluding with the educational establishment; thank goodness for people like Chris Woodhead (one of my political heroes and a member of my personal Dream Team Tory Cabinet) who have consistently said the unsayable on this. I did my 'A' Levels in 1996 and from doing past papers it was abundantly evident that Further Maths (to take the most egregious example) had got substantially easier between 1986 and 1996 (the years for which I did an entire set of past papers). If supposedly the hardest 'A' Level had been so debased so many years ago I find it hard to believe that such trends have not been repeated in other subjects and in the years since 1996.

It's a pity that so many students seem to take all this as a personal attack on their own efforts. Whilst we need to reassure students that that is not the case I think we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the cost of not speaking out on these issues (an intellectually ill-equipped workforce) is far greater than the cost of speaking out (irritated school students).

We need to make it clear that if students from, say, 10 or 20 years ago were able to handle harder exams, then today's students would be equally capable. That may be difficult for students who've just struggled through a batch of exams to have the confidence to believe, but it must be the case unless people are getting more stupid - which I simply do not believe for a minute as it would fly in the face of all scientific rationality. It is a waste of the intellectual potential of today's students if school exams do not enable them to fully utilise their capabilities, and it will mean that they find university studies and their opening years in a challenging graduate job more difficult than they might otherwise do. (I guess this paragraph's my 100 words although I haven't counted them.)

Have to say, though, that if the Tories are incapable of fighting the good fight regarding the grammar school system I do not have much faith in their ability to fight the good fight here.

To those who think exams have not become easier simply take a look at Maths or Physics O level papers from the 1960's or 70's and compare them to the GSCE papers of today.There is unarguably no comparison.They have been dumbed down.....massively. I have no axe to grind I hasten to add as I was poor at both subjects.
I don't think there is any easy way round this we have to be honest both with students,the education establishment and most of all ourselves.Remember grade inflation occured during the Thatcher gov't first.

Exams are not getting any easier for those that are sitting them.

It is just like when you are an athlete in a one Mile race. The distance never gets shorter-but you just train in a more efficient way. Exams are similar, teachers and lecturers are preparing the students to know what they will face, by giving them past exam papers. And because the National Curriculum is so stupid-there is not much variation allowed in the programme lessons.

I also believe the validity of the current exam results are being eroded by the coursework system. It wouldnt be too bad if students were working on long term projects but they are given 3 page essays to do at home-and like any of us-if theres an easy way to do it then we are going to look for it. And this is where the Internet comes into its own, with the ease at which work can be plagiarised. And its not helped by the fact that students are given the work back after the corrections to be able to make changes!!!! SHAME

Whether or not exams have got easier is not really the point. Or more as has become pointless. This debate has become too caught up in the emotionalism of individual achievements. Instead it would be better to argue that regardless of what the standards were and are, that we must improve our standards in order to compete with the challenge posed from India, China, the Far East and the continued challenge of the US. We are confident that if the bar is raised, then given the right level of help and support from the government, then teachers, pupils and parents will all rise to the challenge.

Hear, hear David (and I absolutely agree re Chris Woodhead!)

Education is a major issue for the future, and could be a point on which a General Election turns. The Conservative Party will need not just to explain what it plans to do and why but also explain why the National Curriculum/OFSTED system has gone so sour, and how we propose to stop it doing so again.

This is a very risky issue, as students are rightfully proud of their results and are particularly sensitive to allegations of dumbing down since most put in much hard work. I myself get my A-level results this Thursday. In my 100 word attempt then;

Sadly, the government has failed to deliver education which show the true strengths of students, or to develop those strengths fully. Thus, students find the ever easier exams - and if you don't believe they are easier look at old papers - harder and harder, as they have largely been poorly taught. It is not their fault, the're doing brilliantly, but are being let down by bad teaching. We need new exams which let students shine, and better teaching, otherwise their excellence will go un-noticed and undeveloped, and we will have this yearly cabal in which their achievements are degraded.

Commit to making Chris Woodhead the next Secretary of State for Education.


Exams are the problem not the answer. I've finished doing the International Baccalaureate in May and it is not good because government does not have the authority to tamper with it, it is good because it offers students the time, space and freedom to develop skills that are crowed out by exams in the A levels system. The freedom and time not worrying about exams meant teachers could teach rather than train for exams. SO PLEASE STOP BANGING ON ABOUT EXAMS BEING THE PROBLEM, PLEASE.
P.s Tim if you need or would like an intern for a few months I think I could spare some time in my Gap year.

Excuse my ignorance but what does MMF mean Michael?

There is a simple way to prove exams are getting easier - compare the exam papers.

A few years ago, I saw an unarguable proof. A question in a current A-level Maths paper was found to be identical to one that appeared in an O-level paper from around 1970.

Ergo 1970 O-level = 2003 A-level

I was puzzled by David T Breaker's remark about 100 words and then re-read the item at the top of the thread.

Doh! I didn't read the question carefully.... another damning indictment of the falling educational standards in this country....

Surely another way is to consider that there is now such a grade as A* as well as A.

Why is an A grade not the top grade?!

I'm afraid I see the notion of exams being part of the problem as misguided. If the exams are well-set (i.e. if they are rigorous and wide-ranging, and if they genuinely test the ability of candidates) then I cannot see a course which is dedicated to getting students through those exams can be a distraction from supposedly more important matters.

There needs to be a return to the primacy of information and knowledge in exams, as without information / knowledge, no informed arguments on any topic can be had. Exams need to move away from bitty answers, or (worse) multiple choice, and back towards requiring essays and proofs to develop argument, analysis and critical thinking. Students need to be taught hard factual information in their courses and encouraged to develop the intellectual skills with which to form argument in combination with that knowledge.

The educational establishment has over the years connived to ensure that courses shy away from these challenging requirements by reducing the factual content of courses, steering candidates towards correct guesses with multiple choice and bitty questions, and setting exam papers founded on the premise that it is as valid and useful for students to be able to show empathy with, say, a soldier in the English civil war, as it is for students to have a solid comment of the reasons why the Civil War happened, the historical course of the Civil War, and its after-effects in English history.

Here is a really radical idea - let the politicos and wonks do a internship in a school. Rather than using the education system for party-political points, work alongside good quality teachers and see what the situation really is. We respect people for their banking, industrial and finance experience, so why not let (or even make)the people who make policy get first hand experience. Before anyone says we have all had experience of school - I have spent some time in hospital, but that does not qualify me to make health service policy.

This issue is too deep and too important for this type of empty debate.

I did my A levels in the 80's and swapped careers into teaching a couple of years ago. The difference between A levels then and now is enormous but understandable. A Conservative government, to the detriment of the majority of students for whom vocational traiing is better suited, decided it wanted 50% of students at university. It couldn't make students fit the existing exam arrangements so exam arrangements were adjusted to 'broaden participation'.

Most of my own students work very hard, in fact much harder than we did in my day, but mistake volume for complexity. I'm afraid that as a party we have been full participants in the enormous con trick perpetrated on our young people.

James Maskell will have worked extrmemly hard for his grades and he can only do the exams he is presented with but sorry James the exams really are easier. What students have now though is a much bigger workload.

The restrictive syllabus and ridiculous strictness of marking schemes leaves teachers in the position of exam coaches and not educators - the whole system is a mess. Fortunately we have a generation of bright, media savvy students who will make their way despite the mess of the system they are put through.

Really good to have you back on the site after a long absence kingbongo!

I don't remember a Conservative government demanding 50% of students go to University.When was that Kingbongo?

I am not qualified to comment on whether or not there is empirical evidence that A levels have been 'dumbed down'.

All I know is that my 18 year old daughter is awaiting her results on Thursday. I also know that that she worked a damn site harder than I did for my A levels 26 years ago.

Arguing whether exams have got any easier or harder is, I think, slightly missing the point. There has been grade inflation but it has more to do with the fact that students are increasingly being trained to pass exams rather than being taught a subject and then tested on their knowledge. This produces tremendous exam results but all to often a rather shakey feel for the subject in a "real world" context, which is what universities and employers are interested in.

None of which should demean the effort that is being put in by students; it is just that the system that is focusing this effort ineffectively.

That wouldn't be difficult Jon White! I suspect she'll get much better grades than her old man too.

I don't think that students are taught to THINK/REASON in the same way as they used to be. They are certainly not taught, or it is not conveyed, that English language IS important, both spelling and language are not always very good on this website!! I may be being harsh (some will think), but you are putting words together on paper in order to convey ideas to other people, and if you continually say 'their' instead of 'there' or viceversa and other sorts of misspelling and weird language construction, actually ... it is bad manners in that the people/person you are addressing has to work twice as hard to understand what you are saying. Ask yourself would you be prepared to work that hard yourself - well you have to on this site, so maybe you would!

This a LOT longer than 100 words but it's a topic I feel very strongly about. Hence why it brought about my first post on this fine website.

I speak as someone who left secondary school in June 2002. I was part of the yeargroup that were the first to be affected by the changes made in Curriculum 2000, which, for A-Levels, meant we had a modular system of exams, and had to take an extra subject in the Lower Sixth. I got B’s at Economics, History and Mathematics, and an E at my AS-Level French (don’t ask). I went to Sheffield University and graduated with a First Class honours degree in History (and am currently studying for my Masters).

The problem with public examinations is not necessarily that they are getting easier, although I would agree that if one compared a maths paper from 1972 to one that I took, then yes, I would have really struggled with the older paper. However, the work we did was harder in other respects. During the two years of my Sixth Form, I sat 19 exams, plus two resits of individual modules. These were for just my basic A-Levels. I also sat six General Studies exams, plus an Advanced Extension Award exam in Economics (equivalent to the old S-Level). I also had two extensive pieces of coursework to write during my Upper Sixth year, which totalled around 8,000 words. Under the old system, exams were usually only taken in the Summer of the Upper Sixth, with less coursework required, and with one less subject taken during the Lower Sixth. While the quality of work required may be less, the quantity of work has increased dramatically, and that presents different challenges, especially for those of who worked part-time jobs on our weekends. So it needs to be made perfectly clear that you have to work very hard indeed to be successful. Personally, I think this is wrong.

I see the main problems being as follows. First of all, there is not enough breadth in the system. Many people are able to avoid subject areas they don’t like. So people who prefer science, can avoid studying an Arts subject and therefore avoid developing many of the useful skills these subjects give us – notably, the ability to write and to think analytically. On the other hand, many people take all Arts subjects and avoid the sciences or Mathematics, meaning they are unable their numerical abilities or the ability to think logically. Some people avoid studying a modern language, when this is a wonderful skill to have, as a young person trying to sell oneself to a potential employer. Personally, I really regret my abysmal performance at AS-Level French. Our qualifications do not enough to develop people with rounded intellects. Compare our narrow-but-deep system, with the broader-but-light International Baccalaureate, where at least six subjects are taken, and its mandatory to have a broad range of subject. Additionally, no one complains about the standard of these exams either. I am a firm advocate of introducing the Bac for all state schools in this country.

Second, the assessment of exams is a serious problem. It is actually possible to get 100% in an exam where you don’t get answer all the questions correctly. Trust me, I know, because I got 100% in two General Studies modules where I clearly did not get all the questions right. Friends of mine who took Maths got 100% for modules where they either did not answer a question, or knew that they had got a question wrong. This is a nonsense, yet is created by the problem of moderating, where exam marks are determined not only by how many questions on the paper you got right, but how well you did in comparison to your peers. Another thing that gives this away, is that the actual mark for a module given to you on your Statement of Results is different from what you would have got on the paper (they give you your overall grade, plus a mark for each individual module out of, say 90 or 120). I was able to tell this because I took papers in all subjects which were marked out of, for example, 60. However, on the Statement of Results, I got the mark for the module out of 90. I’m fairly confident they didn’t just multiply what I got by 1.5, by the way. The moderating of exams helps ensure that results improve year on year. Because they compare how you did to how your peer group did, and graded you accordingly, they don’t allow an accurate basis for comparing the performances of students in different year groups.

Of course, another problem is the standard of teaching. It is all very well saying exams need to get tougher. However, we need teachers with the capability to teach to this higher require standard. Seen as we have teachers in some subjects who only have an A-Level in that subject, this is very difficult to do. Not only does the standard of exam need to improve, but the standard of teaching needs to rise with it. But as we are desperately short of teachers in subjects like Maths, Physics, and Modern Languages, then this is a tall order. If you have a Maths degree, you are in demand from well-paying companies who for many jobs demand numerate degree subjects, because fewer people are doing Maths. Do we really expect Maths graduates to turn down these lucrative jobs in favour of taking up teaching, something that is so financially unattractive?

I must take universities to task as well. They criticise the secondary education system of dumbing down, and for making ‘A’ grades seem less valuable because so many more people are getting them. Now then, I have graduated from a subject where nearly 80% of people got a 2:1. So you have the hard-working, conscientious students who maybe just don’t quite perform on the day of a particular exam, lumped into the same bracket as people who scraped a 2:1 because they were down the boozer all the time and turned up to their exam hungover. It's all very well the universities saying they need to produce entrance exams to determine the quality of candidates, but employers are having to find the tiniest reason possible to turn down potential applicants for high-demand jobs, because 2:1 is becoming more and more meaningless in determining how good an applicant is.

Fundamentally, the problem is this. The education system as a whole, at all levels, suffers from an unwillingness to assign clearly distinguishable degrees of success and failure to particular groups of people. We are becoming increasingly terrified of telling our children that they might have failed at something. Yet PEOPLE FAIL THINGS ALL THE TIME. It is a fact of life – and dealing with failure is a skill we all have to learn if we are going to deal with the world that we live in. In the long run, it is damaging to insulate our children from failure, because it’s going to come as a really big shock when they eventually experience it as an adult. And trust me, as someone who under-performed at A-Level, I can assure you that overcoming failure and disappointment makes future successes taste a heck of a lot sweeter.

As a slow writer, I've never been a fan of the traditional written examination format (although I have to admit that if it weren't for written examination papers, my job would be redundant, so I guess I shouldn't grumble too much...), which I believe is a test of memory and writing speed rather more than knowledge and understanding.

Personally, I feel the whole of our secondary education system needs a bit of an overhaul; A-Levels are a bit of an educational no-man's-land at the moment as, in a lot of cases, they bear little relation to what precedes or succeeds them.

I work for a University. It only requires a casual observation of the "students" around me to understand how poor our current literacy rates truely are. Many of this (former polytechnic's) intake of students find grammer, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure a challenge yet they profess to have A Levels in a variety of subjects. If standards have not fallen (sic) then how can it be that a grade C/D student at A Level (a typical offer for this institution) finds the intricacies of written communication so difficult?

It would be wrong to typecast all students (here) this way, but they make up a significant proportion.

End the National Curriculum. Universities set their own entrance examinations ignoring GCSE's and A Levels.

The wheel's gone full circle. It worked in the past. It will work again now.

As in all things get rid of the government which destroys standards. Education works best when left well alone.

The trick is how to get governments and their servants to sack themselves.

I sat my last 'A' Level exams in 2003. Before the last one (a chemistry paper) several of that years chemistry set sat in the sunshine, suspended revision for 30 mins and debated whether the exams were too easy. The conclusions were amaziing; we were about to go and take this exam, but we were not in awe of it, we knew what was coming and 80% of us (it turned out to be 16/18 eventually) knew we would get A's.

What is always stark in this perennial debate is how petulant the responses from many students are. They scream at the reporters who asked them whether the exam currency has been debased that they worked so hard, so of course it hadn't. There lies the problem, the present system has been designed to produce arrogant, petulant yet knowledge and skill shy characters.

There will only be one way of determining whether the current generation, perhaps led by the accepted Oxbridge applicant Adam Rickett (which college Adam?), is intellectually superior to what went before: the quality and quantity of academic research should surely soar, if not all the 'cynics' were right.

I don't remember a Conservative government demanding 50% of students go to University.When was that Kingbongo?

John Major, one of his initiatives for improving chances for all - well intentioned but guaranteed to go badly wrong. Also, I think the word demand is a bit strong - it was set as an ambition.

Really good to have you back on the site after a long absence kingbongo! thank you !

grammer keith? (typo presumably!)

The answer, in a lot less than 100 words, is simple: Bring back grammar schools.

Re: nigel hastilow.

Whether or not we have a grammar school system is totally unrelated to the standard or style of the exams being sat. Bringing back Grammar Schools will not automatically redeem state school education in this country.

Mmmm ... Grammar Schools, yes and what about the vast majority of children who will not be in them. Yes there needs to be a distinction between the academic and the practical but its not that.
Making exams "harder" will not help at all, rather the reverse will take place as students are trained harder and longer for exams. It doesn't take an idiot to work out that will stop teachers from teaching.

It is easy to dismiss grammar schools with the "what happens to the secondary modern kids" line, but I think that this demonstrates a very narrow view of what our educational system should be for.

It has become fashionable recently to assume that everyone, and by extension all kids, are equal and so should be funnelled through one, all-encompassing educational system. I also see a tendency to assume that university is the right place for an 18-21 to be. In other words, the young of today are being forced into the baby-boomer generation's ideal of a completely middle class society.

This denegrates skilled manual labour, and forces considerable student debt on many who would no doubt learn as much, if not more, by going straight in to the workplace.

And this is where the grammar schools come in. They are only divisive if you go along with the idea that absolutely all children should be treated equally throughout their education, no matter what their aptidude or suitability for the classroom. No, the secondary modern kid might be less likely to end up as a senior civil servant, or even being taught advanced number theory by some old Oxbridge don, but does this really matter? The important thing, as far as I am concerned, is that those who wish to, and have the ability to excel academically should be allowed to (and good on them) but that those for which this is not true are provided with a high quality education suitable for them.

Please bear in mind that social mobility has dropped considerably since the demise of the grammar schools: the reality is that the comprehensive kid who has 'escaped' a secondary modern education does not generally go on to become Sir Humphrey, or a Field's medal winner.

But by fostering unrealistic expectation you unbalance society, which is great if you are a Polish plumber but not so good if you are one of the disillusioned generation X who suddenly realises that there are only so many top rungs on the ladder and the law of natural selection still operates in the workplace even if it has been eliminated from schools.

As someone who took my A Levels in 2002 I am not ashamed to admit that they were cleary dumbed down. In class assessments in economics I was getting about 80% (A/B borderline) but in the final paper I got 100% in two papers. My friend who was getting C/D borderline in class tests got 100% in one paper and a B overall. He agrees that the marking was absurd. Then there was my history class where everyone apart from one or two people got As and we all got betwen 90-100% on the Russian Revolution paper. It was odd because we all got marks of 120 on that paper and weren't told what it was out of. Our teacher said it was something to do with us all getting over the "required mark" or something like that?! Bit confusing as you can see.

Then there was that article in the Mail by Chris Woodhead last week where he gave examples of English questions from past O Level papers. I had no idea how to answer them. I'd never been asked to parse anything in an exam and I got an A* in English language GCSE and A in AS Level.

Would I be right in thinking - someone, that many exams have multiple choice answers?

I think those types of question and answer, are an abysmal way of establishing anyone intelligence. For a start both the question and list of answers are only as good or effective, or even accurate, as the people who are setting them!!!! Whenever I have had to answer a multiple choice question I have nearly 'done my head in', as NONE of the answers says what I want to say. But my main contention is that, that type of Q and A system doesn't stretch the thinking or reasoning powers of students.

"Would I be right in thinking - someone, that many exams have multiple choice answers?"

Yup, one of my AS economics exams was multiple choice.

As an extension to my above post, one of the economics papers I got full marks in required the drawing of diagrams, one of which I know I got wrong. So why wasn't I marked down for it?

Malcolm @ 16.08

"That wouldn't be difficult Jon White! I suspect she'll get much better grades than her old man too."

I certainly hope so, Sir. And in much harder subjects too. (didn't we do the same 'A' levels?)

I don't deny that Grammar Schools have had a positive part to play in the education of this nation. However, I do think it is absurd to believe that Grammar Schools, and Grammar Schools alone can restore faith in the education system because they can't. I do believe, however, that distinctions on grounds of ability and apptitude in certain areas do need to be drawn but not at 11 and not in the same way.
And yes dogidies you're completely right about the baby boomers, and to be honest I think they've got a lot of other things to be held accountable for.

In terms of grammar schools _alone_ being the solution, I agree. Selection at 11? It is certainly tough especially as the education process now goes on so much longer. I suppose it really depends on the level of flexibility within the system and I would completely support a system that allowed some movement between streams (although in an increasingly litigious world of pushy parents this might be hard to implement fairly).

"Commit to making Chris Woodhead the next Secretary of State for Education."
Posted by: Steve | August 15, 2006 at 15:26

I suggested that to him a few years ago but he has preferred to set up a number of idependent schools. I think he despairs of Nulab's policies.
This government has done young people a tremendous disservice where education is concerned and anyone who doubts it should read Anastasia de Waal's excellent article "Improving grades, not education" in today's Telegraph.
The CBI has made it clear that the present system is not producing enough employable people. Many independent schools are moving away from A levels (once regarded as the gold standard) to take the IB and they no longer find GCSE challenging enough in several subjects.

By the way, if exams aren't being dumbed down why are private schools adopting the International GCSE?

"Commit to making Chris Woodhead the next Secretary of State for Education."
Posted by: Steve | August 15, 2006 at 15:26

I suggested that to him a few years ago but he has preferred to set up a number of idependent schools. I think he despairs of Nulab's policies.
This government has done young people a tremendous disservice where education is concerned and anyone who doubts it should read Anastasia de Waal's excellent article "Improving grades, not education" in today's Telegraph.
The CBI has made it clear that the present system is not producing enough employable people. Many independent schools are moving away from A levels (once regarded as the gold standard) to take the IB and they no longer find GCSE challenging enough in several subjects.

I have my own reasons for beliving that A-Levels have been dumbed down.

I sat mine in 1996, and took, amongst others, French and German.

I practiced on all the NEAB past papers we had in the library at school-back to 1980. Some subjects change, but German and French are still foreign and cannot be translated without knowing the lingo.

I could get an A until 1990, then I was a borderline B-C student. They were just harder.

Here are two examples I can recall of the problems caused by the education establishment;

Teacher [to year group]: “You have all got to achieve well in these exams or you’ll all end up working as bricklayers on some building site.”

Prime Minister: “Too many children ‘drop out’ of school at 16.”

1. What is wrong with bricklayers? I’d rather have happy bricklayers than burnt out, stressed, over stretched and psychotic graduates with inflated grades.
2. Isn’t 16 the normal school leaving age and you ‘stay on’ for sixth form? Why are leavers at 16 now suddenly classed as ‘drop outs’?

We need to bring back technical schools with proper vocational subjects - not the over academic so called ‘vocational’ subjects of today ruled by health and safety in which students rarely do anything.

Then we need to move away from the sixties socialist belief that we are all the same, equal at everything and needing the same education. Most of all leavers at 16 shouldn’t be termed ‘drop outs’, nor vocational skills deemed inferior.

That way they won't need to make exams easier to help the 'non-bookish' types pass 'bookish' exams.

Good point David. If we had more bricklayers in Britain, we wouldn't have the mass hysteria that there are too many (mainly Eastern European) immigrants taking 'British' jobs in the building industry.

We have become a nation obsessed with academic qualification. Our education system does not produce people with much needed vocational qualifications.

Everything depends on getting good enough grades for university - so we can have a nation of people qualified to be media buyers, social workers, or art critics.

Grammar schools have always played a huge part in encouraging social mobility and their results remain impressive. Entry at 11+ has always created a lot of angst where pupils who fail to gain entry are concerned.
What is important is the principle on which they are based i.e. selection and this, like other contentious subjects such as immigration, must be addressed because it is a fact of political life.
The 11+ entry is hard partly because there are only 163 grammar schools left (apart from those that went independent).
Why not double or treble the number of such schools, reduce the entry standards, admit more pupils for the A level course but retain the principle of selection?

Foreigners taking British jobs that the British people dont want. The alternative of course is that the foreigners dont work at all and simply take money in the form of benefits, justifying the over the top articles that the MoS has come out with in recent weeks...

Those calling for more vocational education - I recommend Alison Wolf's book "Does Education Matter?". It points out that vocational education is generally unpopular despite attempts to encourage it because people are not keen on spending all their time just learning one skill. Throughout the Western World, even in highly vocational Germany, there is a more to more academic qualifications with "transferable skills". Plus as more and more people get degrees they feel the only way to compete in the job market is to get one as well.

In short, there is little that governments can do to encourage vocational education - we've been doing it for years. The best thing is to ensure that those who make use of higher education pay a larger proportion of the cost so that they think hard before investing time and effort in it. That way people who choose academic over vocational just because they want a "good time" at university may think twice.

And still it goes on - I have seen this "debate" on this site before and it is still based in anecdote and knee jerk reaction. The only "positive" suggestion we see are base on bringing back selective education.

One example of the shallowness of the debate - multiple choice exams are used less now than they were in the 1980s. Economics A-Level has long-had a multiple choice element - it is was a way of testing a large amount of what many of posters have been calling for - factual knowlege.

Drop the "when I was a lad" act and get on with some serious policy making.

"And still it goes on - I have seen this "debate" on this site before and it is still based in anecdote and knee jerk reaction."

So of course all those private schools switching to the International GCSE are just doing it on a whim? Besides, it seems that there is a consistency in the anecdotes you criticise regarding the fact that older exams were harder. The fact that these comments are anecdotes doesn't invalidate them.

Note that many of those making this point are not the "when I was a lad" brigade but those who have sat exams within the last decade and have found that, when attempting older exams, they are much more difficult.

"Drop the "when I was a lad" act and get on with some serious policy making."

How's about the re-introduction of old-style exams or the replacement of the current GCSE with the International GCSE for starters?

I think the Tomlinson Report??? Had a few pretty good ideas in it, though he made a bit of a hash trying to combine the I.B, with A levels, BTECs, National Diplomas and vocational A levels.
There should really be two systems from 15 or 16 plus. One being more vocational (though I hate the word, what I mean is one aimed at those not going to Uni) one but still with a core of English, Mathematics and a bit of Science and then with the option of hairdressing, a business studies, I.C.T, even teaching maybe ... (choice is endless). This qualification would also reduce the need to send copious amounts of students, unnecessarily, to Uni to do subjects that don't merit it. The Other being more academic and basically being the I.B.
This would mean a whole series of exams could be scrapped ... HUSSAH ... SATS, AS levels, A levels, GCSEs etc to be replaced by a 15 plus exam and exam 18. Education for all until 18 as well. Confidence restored an education system fit for purpose and ThePrince as P.M.
I do apologise for my little jaunt into the world of dreams, it was fun though. Point is say no to exams and yes to learning.

According to Jeffrey Robinson, a senior maths examiner for OCR:

1989 pass mark for grade C in GCSE maths higher level paper - 45%
2001 pass mark for grade C in GCSE maths higher level paper - 20%

Some universities are getting together to form their own entrance exams instead of the discredited GCSEs.
Or so says our esteemed Deputy Editor. Let's hope not - or our universities really are in trouble GCSEs are the replacement (introduce in the late '80s) to CSEs and O levels. They are a qualification taken at 16 - not a qualification used for university entrance taken at 18.

Good idea Richard - lets run our schools along the same line as public schools. How will the Tories fund the small classes, high per-capita spending etc.

"Good idea Richard - lets run our schools along the same line as public schools."

Erm, where did I say that? I just said we should change the nature of examinations. State schools were able to cope with harder exams in the past despite lacking the advantages of the public schools.

My reference to public schools switching exams was used as proof that GCSEs are perceived as too easy.

I highly recommend people check out the International Baccalaureate Organisation website, which is www.ibo.org and have a good look round. They have some tremendous ideas that would revitalise state school education in this country. Crucially, the performance of students is assessed against set standards, and NOT by relative performance compared to the rest of the year group, as is currently the case with both A-level and GCSEs.

Their curriculum, if taken from the age of 3, all the way through to the age of 18, not only help to foster academic and vocational skills, but also encourage pupils to become well-rounded citizens, who contribute to their community. The program teaches pupils to learn about their environment, and encourages them to foster interests outside of the academic world.

Sadly, I fear that the teaching profession is struggling so much to attract quality recruits, especially in the sciences and modern languages, that it would be very difficult to implement nationally. But I think more should be done to encourage state schools, where possible, to adopt the methods used by the Bac program. In addition, we have companies who complain about the poor standard of student coming out of our schools and universities...well, if they want to do something about this and help provide additional funding for more of our children to take these qualifications, then this should be welcomed with open arms. Corporate social responsibility is such an important thing for companies to take an interest in these days, and helping our kids get better educations would go a long way to satisfying these demands, I thing.

Compared with the outdated National Curriculum, I think it really offers a lot of benefits for young people, and would improve the standard of citizen coming out of our school, which ultimately is something that everyone, not just Conservatives, would surely want.

"Good idea Richard - lets run our schools along the same line as public schools. How will the Tories fund the small classes, high per-capita spending etc."
Posted by: JB | August 16, 2006 at 00:41

If you look at independent schools in the Greater Manchester area, there is not such a great difference in class sizes, nor are the fees all that more than the cost of a place in a state school.
And we must remember that viable independent schools budget for the provision of bursaries and scholarships and for generating some capital for major improvements.
What does differ is the fact that independent schools are also businesses and have to run on business lines if they are to continue; the school receives all the income from fees and it makes the decisions as to how to spend it. Bring back grant maintained schools in the state sector!

JB, I am slightly cautious about suggesting huge numbers of "positive" suggestions because I get the impression that the teaching profession have been overloaded with 'helpful hints' about how to do their job over the last few years and I would be relactant to join the list. However, the bait is simplt too tempting, so here goes:

* The number of exams: a number of posts have cited the sheer number of exams that students go through as a problem. I agree, as I think the current level of testing promotes the idea of education as a route to passing exams rather than education for personal development that is then assessed by exams.

* The balance between facts an understanding. It has become fashionable to wish to prioritise understanding over knowledge. At one level it is hard to disagree; knowledge appears relatively dull compared with understanding. However, I believe that a hard background of facts is absolutely necessary in order to really understand what is going on. What I feel we have at the moment is a set of exam questions that appear to test understanding but which in fact are taught by rote; in effect we end up with the worst of both worlds.

* As you mentioned, some forms of streaming, although I think that motive is very important here. It is critical to emphasise that selection is not a way of discarding 75% of kids before they reach their teenage years but rather should be a way of tailoring the education process to the requirements of the individual.

* Less meddling from central government. Teaching can be a wonderful job and is most effective when the joy a teacher has for a subject can be imparted on the kids. Different teachers will do this in different ways and I don't think that oodles of central government guidelines are that helpful.

* Personally, I would also like to see a system of sabaticals for teachers because, from what I have seen, many teachers become jaded (and, in some of the faster-moving subjects, struggle to stay up with current thinking) and loose the enthusiasm for the subject (and indeed the teaching process) that is so valuable for the pupils.

* As has also been mentioned; this idea that being famous in the media is more important than being a foreman on a building site has to go. I think that Cameron was on precisely the right track when he emphasised well-being: there are many ways to a contented life and being rich and famous make up only a small proportion of these (and thank goodness, or else a good proportion of the population would be committed to misery!)

I find this thread rather depressing. The vast majority of contributors seem only able to argue from their own personal experience, as though this should be the sole determinant of government policy. (The same flaw comes up in debates on health as well, for the same reason).

Some contributors also seem unable to differentiate between several unrelated factors: the dumbing down of exam questions, changes in syllabus, quality of teaching and educational structure (e.g. grammar schools).

Legislating from emotion is not a good idea - that's what gave us the Dangerous Dogs Act and the War Crimes Act. Neither fulfilled its purpose very well.

And my own experience? I'm involved in running a group of schools, but would still forbear from using personal circumstances to dictate how millions of children should be educated.

I think what Adam said at 14.50 yesterday bears repeating:
"Does A-level provide a differentiation between pupils? Are they useful for Universities?
The answers are "No."
Employers complain that students lack basic literacy and numeracy standards that they require."

Education must have a utilitarian purpose, given the huge investment that the state makes in it.

Adam succinctly proves that the present system is not, to use the current cliche, "fit for purpose".

There is a real problem with the usefulness of current public exams in all manner of ways. As someone who works in a school, I can comment on some of what I have seen at GCSE. I can't comment on A-levels from a lack of experience.

There is an over-reliance on coursework, with pupils spoon-fed the phrases they need to include in order to check the boxes examiners are looking for and given multiple attempts to submit the coursework. This means that for pupils with even the slightest shred of ability and motivation it is almost impossible to fail to pick up marks.

There has been a real shift in culture in schools. If a pupil doesn't hit the expected grades then teachers come under real scrutiny from school management. Obviously there are good and bad teachers and teachers should have some measure of accountability. However, there is no real action taken against bad teachers, but there is a removal of responsibility from pupils for their results.

League tables, like many other central government targets, cause distortion in priorities. Vocational courses which are nominally worth two or four GCSE passes for league table purposes are pushed within schools. I feel that this is actually conning pupils who are continually told their course is 'worth four GCSEs', it might have the coursework burden of four GCSEs, but do employers really care about that? Also the inclusion of these courses do not help parents differentiate between schools that are academic high achievers and schools with a high proportion of vocational courses.

The distorting effect of the current league tables also mean that disproportionate resources are put into children who are borderline D/C grade candidates at the expense of other children.

News in the press about exam papers having pass marks below 25% damage the credibility of exams for everyone, regardless of the excuses and explanations offered by examining boards and the government. Most normal people struggle to understand how only getting 1 mark out of every 4 available can possibly be considered doing well.

The falling standards also impact the brightest pupils. If the rises in top grades continue, then within the next few years we will see 20% of pupils getting either an A or A* grade. Whereas once only the academically exceptional could offer A grades across the board, now it is relatively commonplace, making it harder for the truly exceptional to stand out.

Finally, lets be honest, for all the younger people here its time to be brutal. Do we really have any doubt that this dishonest government, who has changed the way inflation is measured, changed its measurement of where the economic cycle started, fudged and misrepresented statistics of all sorts, would hesitate to manipulate exam pass figures to try and convince voters that education was improving?

No-one doubts the hard-work and commitment of many pupils and teachers across the country and it is only fair that all their efforts are rewarded with examination grades that give a true reflection of their abilities and that have the confidence of employers and higher education.

Personally I'd look to something more radical than changing the examination system. The whole education system needs to be looked at. High on the list is the removal of the snobbery inherent in many schools that looks down on non-academic careers/courses and pupils.

Dep Ed might I try a 100 word summary:

Teachers and pupils alike are to be congratulated on the excellence of this year's exam results.
The ability and dedication of pupils who excelled would have brought them similar rewards in previous eras.
Nulab has however done them a disservice by allowing grade devaluation, so that universities can no longer depend upon A level results to identify high flyers.
Equally, by making it possible for schools to teach to the test and to avoid harder subjects, too many people now leave schools without the necessary basic qualifications to enter the workforce.
Nulab Education is now hardly "fit for purpose".

PS a personal bete noire: "pupils" are taught, "students" study.

Being a private tutor in maths and science, I have been aware of the dumbing down of our exams, but to see how badly standards have fallen, log on to


for details of recent exam papers in mathematics in the INDIAN school curriculum.

Year X = 15-16 y.o. (GCSE / O level)
Year XI / XII = 16-18 y.o. (AS / A level).

This leaves a lot of food for thought !

I am in the middle of my GCSE's and in my last year of school. I am one of the youngest and i am only 15 and will still only be 15 when i am taking all my exams

In the space of 2 months I will be taking 21 exams and in total nearly 48 hours in the exam hall.

I have just had to do about 5 pieces of coursework at the same time. It is very difficult to keep on top of it all. I think you idiots need to think about the people who are woring there arses off to get good grades before you start slagging us off saying that they are too easy.

Much of the sylibis is challanging and putting more and more presure on young people is just going to turn them off school and on to the street. hence YOBS and gang culture.

Teenagers are been respected less and less and I personly have had enough! We are not all theiving skiving lay abouts.

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