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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Falling Education Standards with Better Grades?

Every year we see young people getting better grades at GCE and A level exams. This reflects both upon the schools and the government to their credit, it seems. But the increase in standards has puzzled lots of people.

A generation ago it was very rare to get three A grades at A level. Now not only are several people in the same class getting three A grades, but it seems that the A grade itself is insufficient, and has been replaced by the A Star grade. Which would be fine, except, of course, that now lots of people are getting three A Star grades and the whole question of how to really judge a student's competence and ability is again up for question.

Mainstream universities are now talking about their own entrance exams, much like the well established Oxbridge Entrance, because they mistrust the existing state exam system.

This is all in the context of the government insisting that the standards have not fallen, and that an A grade today is as "difficult" (whatever that means) to obtain now as it was 30 years ago. In response to this, some people say that to show this much improvement in a generation the species itself must have mutated, at least a little bit.

Clearly an A today is not the same as an A 30 years ago, because a species cannot mutate in that way so quickly.

So that means there has been a fall in standards. The reason for the fall in standards is that there is more than one examination board. If there was only one board then standards would remain the same - indeed they could remain the same. But because there is more than one the laws of the market have driven them to compete.

It is a whole economic cycle in microcosm: the schools want to be further up the league tables than their competitors, so they select the easier exam board. In turn, the exam boards compete to get customers (the schools) by lowering standards every year. The result is that more people get better grades.

Two years ago one retired head teacher said exactly the same thing. Then he quickly apologised for saying such an outrageous thing, adding that he thought everyone knew that was the case anyway.

Then the media shut up about this, the schools shut up about this, the government shut up about this. Most worrying of all, the teachers shut up about this. Mind you, what would they have to gain by blowing the whistle, and what an awful lot to lose ....

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