Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Chris McGovern: Let’s stop kidding ourselves. A-levels came off the global gold standard long ago


There has been much celebration of the latest A-Level results. Given that candidates can only sit the examinations placed in front of them,  I would like to add my congratulations. However, I would urge commentators on these results  to temper what appears to be an outbreak of euphoria.

On the one hand, we have past critics of grade inflation expressing satisfaction that the pass rate has finally fallen. On the other hand, the educational establishment is congratulating itself on the ever growing numbers of youngsters being offered places at universities.

Frankly, what’s not to like? Well, quite a lot, really – if we open our eyes to the reality behind the results. And, I am not just referring to the fact that around half of the bright-eyed youngsters we send off to universities become fairly quickly disillusioned and end up either unemployed, or employed in non-graduate jobs.

No, our self-delusion about A-Levels is even greater. It is summed up in a comment piece for The Daily Telegraph headlined, “Exams are tougher, and that’s good…”. In the piece, Richard Cairns (Head of Brighton College) states that, “Michael Gove may have been Education Secretary for four years but today’s A-Level results are the first to bear his hallmark.” This hallmark, apparently, includes ‘tougher’ exams,  measured partly by a fall in the pass rate for the first time in 32 years. Sadly, things are not at all what they seem.

First of all, the pass rate decline was an insignificant tenth of one per cent, whereas the percentage of top grades increased by six times that amount. Much more telling is the fact that the overall pass rate is 98 per cent. It was 62 per cent back in 1982, before the advent of annual grade inflation.

Under all of Michael Gove’s predecessors as Education Secretary, the pass rate at A-Level was lower. How on earth can an examination that has become all but impossible to fail, now be heralded as a success story for the former Education Secretary?

A leading article about A-Levels in The Times went so far as to claim that “these results are a vindication of the Government’s reform programme”. Yes, seriously!

Not so long ago we were reading that OECD test results of educational attainment show that the bottom 10 per cent of pupils in Asia Pacific Shanghai are ahead of the top 20 per cent of pupils in the UK. In other words, our A-Level students are miles behind the best in the world!

Mathematics A-level may, now, be the most popular subject choice at A-level but its academic level is about the same as that taught to 14- and 15-year-olds in the best performing education systems around the world. Why are we fooling ourselves? If we judge Michael Gove’s time as Education Secretary on the basis of the latest crop of A-Levels results, he was a complete failure. He deserves a fairer judgement and the country needs a credible public examination system.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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