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Annual debate on A levels

August 19, 2010

Firstly, congratulations to everyone in Bristol West who’s got the A level results they wanted today.  I have my own vivid memories of, er, 25 years ago when I got my own results (ABB) which meant that I’d got my place at Bristol University to study history.  And I’ve been in Bristol ever since that autumn, so your life is about to take an exciting new turn.

It was nice to be lying in bed listening to the Today programme coverage this year.  For the last few years I’d been in Westminster fronting the story for the Lib Dems, either as Schools or Universities shadow minister.  The day would start with being driven to GMTV at about 5.30am for their news hour and often doing Radio 5 Live at midnight and ending up completely knackered.  Every year for a decade or so young people have had to put up with journalists (and some MPs)  wingeing about how A levels are too easy these days or that some subjects are “soft” options.

Back in 2007 I proposed that a commission should be set up to look at what is expected of a 21st century A level.  The commission should be made up of university admissions tutors (the prime users of A levels these days) as well as employers.  We could then at least settle the question of standards.   But the marking schemes used by examiners and the grade boundaries are more contentious.  Is it better to have grade norms (the top 5% get an A) or should everyone who gets above a certain mark be awarded that grade?  Norms would be better I think – but we know that young people don’t get the same levels of exam preparation across the range of schools in England.  So I’ve always been in favour of a range of fair access policies for university admissions….but that’s a huge subject best left for a later blog posting!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Leo permalink
    August 19, 2010 2:53 pm

    Hi Stephen,

    There’s an interesting chart on the BBC website, showing percentage of A-levels awarded A grade since the 60’s.

    In 1990, about 11% got A grades; in 2009 25% got A grades.

    It doesn’t seem feasible to me that students have got twice as smart since 1990, and this is not a criticism of the students. It seems more likely that they’ve got twice as good at doing A-levels.

    This can’t be good for the credibility of the exams.

    Admittedly I would imagine that most employers are not interested in comparing the results of different generations of students, so the variation of achievement between generations is perhaps not such an issue.

    When it comes to using them as a way of gauging the comparative ability of students within one generation, more useful perhaps.

    Grading Norms would seem better than just getting marks. It would mean that an A grade always means that person was in the top 5% (or whatever) of that year’s results. That’s more credible about an A grade which is ever more readily acheived.

    I’m still dubious about the fairness of exams as a means of measuring ability in the first place (particularly with respect to the arts) – but that’s a whole different topic.

  2. Chris Askew permalink
    August 19, 2010 7:49 pm

    I also congratulate those students who have done well in their A levels. However it does seem an irony to celebrate success in academia when the government is busy dismantling the education system.

    Those who are successful in getting higher education places, will find when they complete their course, that the government and banks have destroyed private commerce, whilst opportunities will be similarly diminished in the state sector.

    Hopefully you will develop some skills you can take abroad, because they are not valued by this country.

    • Gus Hoyt permalink
      August 20, 2010 12:33 pm

      I agree with Chris,
      full congratulations to all those who completed their exams, let alone the fantastic results…however, what are they to do now?

      With universities funding being cut and students facing crippleing debts on leaving, the oppertunity is not as attractive as when we attended Uni Stephen. Not only are there no grants, but your new graduate tax hobbles them further during what should be the most exciting years of their lives.

      I am pleased you had the luxury of reading History – a noble subject, but would you repeat this experience were you to leave in such financial straits as students today?

      • August 20, 2010 4:23 pm

        funding cuts in higher education were announced by Peter Mandelson – a billion pounds’ worth. The new government isn’t reversing them and I’m afraid there are more to come. Actually there are grants – Labour abolished them in 1998 but reintroduced them in 2005 I think, in readiness for their tripling of tuition fees. The new govt is looking for a fairer way of obtaining a graduate contribution – I have long favoured a graduate tax to replace fees.

  3. August 19, 2010 8:57 pm

    Criticising the sliding of standards is no criticism of the young adults. It is not their fault they sat easier exams than people did 10 or 20 years ago. However, it is somewhat unfair to those who got a ‘high’ A in one or two subjects might miss out on an Oxbridge place to someone who scraped it.

    Furthermore, if students are going to university unprepared in basic maths and english, what about the ones who don’t go to university? Sliding standards despite doubling of the education budget prove that many schools can do better.

  4. August 23, 2010 9:43 pm

    Congratulations on your excellent A-level results and your degree success at Bristol’s top notch university.

  5. Sonia permalink
    August 25, 2010 12:23 pm

    It really does you no justice to answer criticism of funding cuts being imposed by your govt by telling us that they were someone elses idea. You were elected to govern and make your own decisions, you could have reversed teh cuts but you decided to implement them. I’d like to know why you support this rather than blaming the otehr bloke.

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