Now, this business of improving “A” level and GCSE scores. What could account for them ? It is a real conundrum, because many fewer people took “A” levels in the past, so you’d expect, if anything, results today to be worse*. Let us start with the understanding that it could not possibly be that things are being done better – after all, this is the public sector and so any recorded improvement must be the result of fraud or declining standards (Question – what would the Daily Mail say about educational standards if pass rates fell year on year ?). This leaves the following possibilities:
- Possibility 1: Kids are getting brighter. Now, this is not as stupid as it sounds. There is a long term effect – known as the Flynn effect – which notes that IQ scores are improving decade by decade. The decade improvement is about 3 percentage points, so kids taking “A” levels now are, on average, 12 points brighter than, er, us. Why does this happen ? No-one knows. Could be less lead in the atmosphere, or too much lead in our pencils. However, the broad IQ effect is unlikely to be a great explanation for improving “A” level scores, because the entry is not made up of the whole population but selected by ability – if you don’t get 5 good GCSEs, you’re not allowed on the course. Also, the biggest rise in IQ is at the low ability level, where people don’t take academic education post 16.I do think, though, that kids work harder today. I cannot remember ‘study buddy’ groups in my sixth form, whereas today it is common to see classmates meeting outside lesson hours to go over new or difficult topics. For what it’s worth, I had a girlfriend who went to university in the 1980s, and her cohort worked very, very much harder than I did over my degree. Remember, the number of first class honours degrees has risen at least as sharply as good “A” level results.
- Possibility 2: Teaching is getting better, as all teachers have to be teacher trained (not true in 1960 grammar schools) and inspection is more austere, eliminating the worst performers. Years ago I can recall working in colleges where there were some classes in which almost everyone passed, and other subjects almost no-one passed, due to teacher incompetence. One guy I observed when doing my own teaching practice was a total disgrace. Problem with this as a general explanation – there is a weak relationship between teacher training and classroom quality as observed by inspectors
- Possibility 3 – the exams are getting easier. If by this we mean ‘the curriculum is narrower and the concepts less complex and demanding’ this probably isn’t true. I haven’t done objective comparisons with past papers, but people who have (and have no axe to grind) say the standard is comparable though there remain some doubts in hard science areas. I think it probably is true that some boards were more austere than others – at economics, I had the feeling that JMB was maybe half a grade more difficult than AEB, though most students who entered in a number of boards – don’t know if it’s still allowed – on the basis that buying more lottery tickets increased chances of success, got the exact same score in each. I taught “A” level economics from 1969 to 1981 and my impression was that it did not get easier, but I got better at teaching it: see below.
- Possibility 4 – the way that students and teachers approach the exams is more focused. This is, I believe, the answer. Examinations are nowadays presented in a way which is much more precise about what is expected, questions are less ambivalent, mark schemes make clear how much is awarded for each section of the question. Teachers coach classes in study skills and revision effectiveness. Lessons have specified learning goals, which are shared with the class and tested. Students are more demanding. Extra classes are put on where students can drop in for additional help. This is the “Mount Everest” explanation – the reason there are more climbers now is not that the mountain is lower, but we have much more of a clue about how to climb it successfully.
Oh, one last thing. I am usually in France when the bac results come out. They are getting better each year, and the press wonder whether standards are falling.
*It is this difference in staying on rates that explains why employers say skills of school leavers are poorer than in the past. In the past, when few people stayed on beyond 16 and only 3% went to university, there were many more bright competent people entering the labour market at 16 and 18 than today