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Tom Whipple's sociology examination

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Tom Whipple

It is not merely the tabloid press and the frankly obscurantist Daily Telegraph which has been attacking the "soft subjects".

On behalf of the Guardian Tom Whipple sat the three-part sociology AS-level within a fortnight. It was meant to be an investigation into whether exams are getting easier. This is not "proof" of anything. As a mathematician Tom Whipple can calculate the statistical relevance of this evidence. It is zero.

Child prodigy Ruth Lawrence achieved a starred first in Math at Oxford University at the age of 13 (the youngest British person ever to earn a first-class degree and the youngest known graduate of Oxford University). Ruth got an A in Maths A-level aged nine. Nobody said this was a comment on the nature of mathematics but a comment on Ruth's abilities.

Tom Whipple was described by teachers as a smart a** with a taste for self publicity. That is the only thing which was proven.

Edited by Derek McMillan
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I have mixed reactions to the Tom Whipple story. On the one hand, it may just prove that Tom Whipple is exceptionally clever and can mug up on a subject quickly - and, as a journalist, he probably would have been acquainted through experience with many sociological issues by virtue of experience in his job. On the other hand, I wonder how easy it would be, for example, for a journalist to mug up as quickly on maths or a skill-related subject such as music or foreign languages. There are stories of gifted mathematicians and musical and linguistic geniuses, but these are rare people.

I consider myself a fairly gifted linguist. I speak German fluently, French adequately and I can "survive" in Italian, Spanish, Russian and Hungarian and I can make some sense of written Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. I could not, however, imagine myself getting up to AS standard in a new foreign language in a fortnight, even in a cognate language of one that I had already learned. The Council of Europe estimates that an adult learner needs on average 350-400 learning hours in order to reach Level B1 (Threshold Level) of the Common European Framework (roughly a good GCSE pass). At this level you just begin to communicate with a degree of confidence - and you need many, many more hours to achieve fluency. I got up to basic conversational level in Hungarian after around 100 learning hours - an hour a week with a Hungarian teacher for two years, combined with six two-week visits to the country over the same period. I found it difficult to progress further, however - I just ran out of time. This is why headteachers in England are allowing foreign languages to go into decline in state secondary schools, i.e. they are perceived as "difficult" (which is borne out by GCSE results) and they skew the perfomance tables. At least two thirds of state secondary schools in England have now stopped making foreign languages compulsory beyond Key Stage 3.

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The standard of A level exams has come under a lot of criticism recently. 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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I find it deeply depressing that having persuaded most teachers, students and parents that there is little more to education than the production of exam grades the government and others now slate students and teachers for becoming rather good at this highly artificial exercise. :help

As for Tom Whipple's A grade at AS Sociology. Given quality revision materials, a reasonable adult brain and a university education it is not surprising that he was able to obtain this grade in an examination design for 16 year olds in their first year of advanced study!

What is surprising is that so many apparently sensible people think it is surprising and draw such odd conclusions from it.

A few years ago I had a colleague in school (a science teacher) who would insist on sitting humanities exams with the 6th formers. He was well read and fairly intelligent and was able to produce excellent grades following a similar formula to Whipple. The effect on the students of course was to demoralise them completely. I came to regard the teacher in question as a fool with a rather fragile ego. I was also very concerned with the effect it had on my students and lobbied the Headteacher to stop him.

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