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Exam-season script in need of a happy ending

Comment: Geoff Barton

Comment: Geoff Barton

Roll up, roll up. Next year's A-level results will be released on Thursday August 19, 2010 and you don't need to be Mystic Meg or have crystal balls to predict what the day's headlines might be. Something about falling standards, exams getting easier, students opting for easier subjects, perchance? Then on Friday August 20 the cliche that just won't go away: broadsheet newspapers to carry images of girls in strappy tops beaming wildly and brandishing their A grades for the camera.

Yes, the annual education pantomime season is already less than a year away.

It would be funny if it wasn't so disheartening for our students. By all means let's have the debate about standards, but could we get it out of the way now please rather than in the very week the results come out?

This year I tried to see the story of record-breaking A-levels through the eyes of people not in education - my friends in the real world. How do we explain the fact that record-breaking numbers of A-level entries were awarded A grades, that more than one in four entries - 26.7 per cent - got the top grade, and that the overall pass rate rose to 97.5 per cent, up 0.3 percentage points?

As this was the 27th consecutive increase in results, it's not unreasonable or unexpected of journalists and members of the public to wonder where it might end. It's a bit like the scene in the last chapter of Julian Barnes' wonderful novel A History Of The World In 10 12 Chapters. Our hero lives in heaven where every day he plays golf on a perfect 18-hole course. Finally, and with practice, this being heaven, he plays a full round in 18 shots and is left wondering whether next he might get it down to 17.

Might it not feel like that to the bewildered spectators on the sidelines of the A-level announcements?

People who took their A-levels five or 15 or 30 years ago are bound to be suspicious of the implication that young people today are cleverer than they were. And if students aren't doing better because they have more brain power, it's not difficult to leap to the assumption that the exams must be easier. We perhaps, therefore, need to be a little less defensive in our analysis and little clearer in the reasons for the gains.

First, there's history. Originally conceived in 1951, A-levels were for a tiny proportion of the population. At 16 you'd either leave school or you'd do A-levels - there weren't many other choices. Therefore, more students would take A-levels even if they weren't necessarily the most appropriate courses. Inevitably there would be more low and fail grades. That suits a culture that measures the success of an examination by how many students fail it, but, of course, it's not a productive way for a young person to spend a critical couple of years of their life.

So as a range of alternative academic and vocational courses became available, we became more selective about who actually sits A-levels. Many schools decree that you can't study an A-level if you didn't achieve a grade B in the subject at GCSE. Result: more students achieve good grades because those who would have failed have been filtered out.

Second, there's progress in pedagogy. A-levels now aren't the same as when we sat them. In my day you'd embark on your chosen courses, coast through the lower sixth, get a shock when you did badly in the lower-sixth exams, and (in most cases) work harder in the upper sixth.

Now the stakes are higher - for students and schools. Using results to measure and compare the performance of institutions means that schools leave less to chance. So the level of monitoring is intense and the kind of kick-up-the-pants shock tactics of internal exams have long gone. The best sixth forms are heavy on student monitoring and targetted intervention. We track how students are doing, we have access to past papers, students can get superb guidance online from examiners, and they can, if necessary, re-sit exams. It's a different world from the "sink or swim" experience of the past.

Third, there's the students themselves. Why are we surprised that the most heavily tested cohort of youngsters in the history of British education know how to take and pass exams? They are being taught by teachers who are held accountable for their results in schools that get ranked in performance tables. They follow modularized courses with an extraordinarily rich supply of additional resources to help them succeed and regular tests to see how they are doing.

So what about standards? Is sitting the driving test easier these days because you can access driving-test tutorials online and study past theory tests? Would it be a better test if more people failed?

How nice to rewrite next year's exam-season script with a message of "not easier but genuinely different" and to have the message explained. However, the arid news desert of late August enjoys its regular panto schtick: "Standards fallen?" "Oh yes they have . Oh no they haven't" - repeated, often literally, ad nauseam.

  • Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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