Standing up for the class of 2012

Michael Gove started it, journalists promoted it, and middle aged men and women across the land joined in with a chorus of “exams were harder in my day”. The world seems full of BIMDYs who back in their day were fortunate enough to be educated in a golden age of academic rigour assessed by formidable three hour exams with no resit opportunities. Such BIMDY students studied maths packed full of calculus, read German and French Literature, and needed a working knowledge of atmospheric physics to scrape even a pass in A level geography. It was tough in those days.

The educational glass in Britain often seems half empty. Nobody listening to the output from the teaching union conference season could have missed the fact that teachers have a tendency to moan. Reforms always seem to be prefaced by the word “botched”, with teachers and BIMDYs  looking wistfully back to a golden age when British schools and exams were the envy of the world. It has been downhill ever since with, depending on your political standpoint, the national curriculum, OFSTED, grade inflation, Michael Gove, pension reform, David Blunkett, free schools and academies doing their bit to erode standards. The recent criticism of A level achievement has been particularly sharp with Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph arguing that exam standards have been so diluted that the results achieved are “lies”. Strong stuff, and rather demoralising for the hundreds of thousands of students in the class of 2012 about to sit their GCSE, AS and A level exams.

I’m old enough to be a BIMDY; I’m even old enough to have taught BIMDYs. In my 20 years as a teacher I have seen lots of reforms, and most of them have been beneficial. On balance the class of 2012 are better educated and achieve at a higher level than their predecessors.

The overall standard of teaching in British schools has improved. There always were excellent teachers, but in the past there were a greater number of also-rans. I enjoyed the war time tales of ex-serviceman who had drifted into teaching, but I didn’t learn much from them. (Although you could while away period 8 by asking Major Adams  about his Home Guard days).

More is known today about the process of learning; as a result teaching has become more sophisticated with an emphasis on meeting individual pupil needs. Today’s teachers know that pupils have different learning pathways, and that a one size fits all approach (it was dictation when I was at school) does not work.

Learning support, virtually unheard of twenty years ago, has revolutionised the educational provision for dyslexics, dyspraxics, and those with other potentially learning limiting conditions such as Asperger’s.

Technology has also vastly improved the teaching and learning process. Electronic whiteboards, language laboratories and interactive software have enhanced lessons. In moving from the limited textbooks and encyclopaedias of the past to the immense on-line learning resources of today education has been transformed. Today’s pupils receive a far richer knowledge diet than ever before, and as a consequence have to process more information whilst seeing both the big picture and the small detail.

Pupils currently revising for exams will be able to make use of their school’s virtual learning environment, watch online videos, complete google searches, listen to university podcasts, join on-line revision communities, take part in virtual lessons…..

The list is lengthy and the educational opportunities vastly superior to those experienced by the BIMDY generation.

Today’s students are also under more pressure than their predecessors; pressure that compels them to apply themselves to their studies. In the 1980s I was offered a place at Oxford on the basis of my performance in three Oxford entrance papers and two interviews. The process lasted two months and the outcome was a two E grade at A level offer. In contrast 2012 applicants have to achieve a clean sweep of A* grades in year 11, ideally score in excess of 95% in AS modules in year 12, excel in Oxford admissions tests and interviews in Year 13, and then work hard to achieve any offer likely to be at least A*AA at A level. It is a three year process and you can’t put a foot wrong.  I’m glad I was offered my place in 1987; I wouldn’t fancy my chances in 2012.

Undoubtedly there are some problems with teaching, learning and assessment today but the educational glass is at least three-quarters full. Some of the much criticised A level grade inflation is due to the modularisation of exams and the cutting of course content, but a good proportion reflects real improvements in standards. OFSTED recognise as much with the proportion of schools achieving good or outstanding judgements rising year on year. Likewise something must be going right for the percentage of first class degrees awarded by British Universities to rise from 7% in 1994 to 15.5% in 2011.  These figures suggest school leavers are well prepared for University. There is much to be proud of in British education. We may be reluctant to recognise it but that should not diminish the achievements of the class of 2012.

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