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The Merits of A levels.

John Simkin

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The standard of A level exams has come under a lot of criticism over the last week. One commentator has claimed with a 97% pass rate it has become nothing more than a leaving certificate.

So many are getting A grades that it is making it difficult for universities to select students to do their courses. The papers are full of stories of students with 3 ‘A’ levels at A grade but have been rejected by all the universities they applied to.

I first started teaching A levels in 1977. I taught my last group in 2000. During that period grade levels were played around with resulting in a dramatic fall in standards. I would estimate that a student who got a “E” in the late 1970s would have got at least a “C” in 2000. One reason for this is the competition that goes on between exam boards for students.

There is no doubt that teachers ability to prepare students for exams also improved dramatically. If you had spent enough time reading chief examiner reports and studying past papers, and student who completed the course and turned up for exam was ensured of getting at least an “E”. That is not to say that all students got the grades they deserved. There are still hundreds, if not thousands of teachers who have not adapted their teaching methods since first entering the profession. I was horrified when I studied the exam grades achieved by all students at my last school (it was a sociology research project). The results that some teachers obtained were appalling. The main offenders were heads of department who had been teaching for over 20 years. In some cases it would seem they had no idea of how to prepare students for exams.

The government argue that the main reason for the improved results is a better teaching. The teaching profession is of course willing to go along with this myth. However, I would question if the standard of teaching actually improved during this period. There is much more to education than preparing them to take exams.

The Guardian carried out an experiment this year. Tom Whipple, studied for and sat sociology AS-level in a fortnight. He got 97% in the exam and of course got an A. He says:

“It seems I can draw two possible conclusions. I could cite the result as proof that AS-levels, particularly the newer ones, are easy - thereby degrading the efforts of thousands of teachers and pupils. Or I could regard it as proof that I'm really rather clever.”

This first part is definitely true. However, as someone who taught Sociology for many years, it is one thing to get an A at AS-level. Is something else to get an A grade after completing your second year. The research project stretches the very brightest. Nor is it something you can get from studying a revision book for two weeks. Although it is difficult, the students actually enjoy it and was a major factor in persuading them to study sociology at university.

The disturbing factor was all those students who kept going an end up with an D/E grade. They then signed up for university courses that they could not cope with and dropped out within a couple of years. What is more, by this time they were seriously in debt. What a mad world we are living in.


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