I had hoped that the Olympics were turning Britain into a glass three quarters full nation. Some of the reaction to today’s ‘A’ level results suggests we are already drifting back into our traditional glass half empty and probably cracked mentality.
The achievements of the Class of 2012 are a cause for real celebration especially on the day when results are received. Instead critics line up to suggest that the 30th successive increase in the overall pass percentage must be evidence of ‘grade inflation’, or that the marginal decline in the A* percentage from 8.2% in 2011 to 7.9% in 2012 indicates grading wasn’t stringent enough in previous years.
At best the timing of such criticism is unfortunate. Criticising ‘A’ levels on results day is akin to turning up at a wedding ceremony and complaining about marriage as an institution. Today is when we should celebrate the years of hard work and progress made by our students not belittle the worth of the grades they have just been given.
Given that this year the government ordered a crackdown on supposed ‘grade inflation’, the tiny 0.3% decline in A* grades and the 0.4% fall in A grades, suggests there was limited grade inflation in the ‘A’ level system.
The education glass really is three quarters full, and many of the ‘A’ level grade improvements are genuine. The regularity of modular exams spread throughout the sixth form makes pupils and indeed teachers work harder. Everybody involved in ‘A’ level education is no more than two terms away from a public exam on which they will be judged (students for academic attainment and teachers for professional performance). Such frequent accountability drives up standards. Modularity also allows pupils to drop weaker subjects at AS and concentrate on the better subjects for ‘A’ level. As a result there is always a significant jump in performance between AS (Year 12) and A2 (Year 13) results.
However, it is not just modularity that has improved educational attainment. The internet has also had a marked effect. Today’s students and teachers can access a multiplicity of high quality learning resources from around the world. My geography lessons can thus be enhanced by footage from live webcams on the top of volcanoes, and detailed scientific papers from world authorities. Students wishing to consolidate their volcanic knowledge can then test themselves using online assessments. It is a far cry from education in the 1980s where the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a limited range of textbooks, and the odd Betamax video were as good as it got.
All the evidence from lesson inspections, (where both state and independent school inspectorates have recorded rising standards) from exam results, and from what students go on to achieve at university (the number of first class degrees awarded has doubled since 1994) indicate there have been genuine advances in educational achievement.
Those who criticise ‘A’ level often have other motives. Politicians are always keen to play to the media gallery in pursuit of electoral support, whilst Heads of International Baccalaureate schools know that in criticising ‘A’ level they are marketing their own institutions.
Of course all is not rosy in the educational garden. ‘A’ levels could be improved, although reforms led by teachers who are experts in 16-18 education are more likely to be successful, than ones led by politicians and university academics who are not. Academic standards may be rising in the UK, but they may not be rising as fast as in some other countries. These, however, are arguments for another day. The issuing of ‘A’ level results should be a cause for national celebration and a chance to say well done to 300,000 students who have successfully concluded their sixth form studies. I raise my three quarters full glass in a toast to the Class of 2012.