A salute to standards
In the turmoil which surrounds the debate on A-level standards, fundamental and heretical questions are being asked.
Many A-level teachers even want to know what "standards" means, according to a survey of schools belonging to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. Do we best decide on standards by looking at examination scripts, the nature of the questions asked, what is required by the syllabus, or perhaps by some measure of how well students are prepared for the next stage in their lives, whether in higher education or employment?
The debate seems to centre on the quality of work which attaches to the grades awarded and how this quality has changed over time, but does it matter what is happening to grades so long as overall standards are rising?
In any case, is it possible in all subjects to measure with precision the quality of work which candidates produce?
Most teachers say we should concern ourselves with discovering whether the overall quality of pupils' work has been rising, regardless of the grades which are awarded. By this measure, very few colleagues believe that there have been significant falls in standards. Most say that there has been no clear trend in one direction or the other. In some subjects pupil skills had increased; in other areas they had declined.
Ironically, most heads of department were reluctant to say that standards had fallen in their subject but suggested that in some aspect of core skills - numeracy, communication (spelling, grammar and reading) - there was some evidence of decline. However, one teacher drew attention to an examination board report of 1898 where the same comments had been made.
The most common response was that it is impossible to make comparative judgements because of the lack of appropriate evidence. One interesting comment was that there was more "sideways" change than "up or down" movement of standards. This was a neat way of expressing a commonly held view: subjects are so different today as to preclude useful comparison. Items included on some science syllabuses were the preserve of university courses 10 years ago.
While efforts have been made to thin out the factual content required in some syllabuses, the demand on skills in terms of presentation, analysis of data, use of information technology and practical investigation is much greater. In years gone by, syllabuses were much more rigid. Candidates in English and foreign literature now have more choice, a wider range and more modern texts.
Critics are inclined to emphasise what today's pupil cannot do and to overlook the skills they now acquire much earlier than before. If the emphasis now is on skills and understanding rather than simple factual recall, this less rigorous approach makes it more difficult for outstanding candidates to shine in comparison with others.
Some courses have become so wide that there is a danger of superficiality. Pupils are losing the habit of learning by rote and expect to be given access to information. Critics worry about the damage caused by the "calculator mentality" which has extended far beyond the reaches of simple arithmetic. Some pupils no longer see the need to use their brains to perform a simple task when a cheap and readily available machine can do it for them.
While some blame GCSE for problems, they acknowledge that it has increased accessibility and is one reason why more pupils remain in full-time education after the age of 16.
Improvements in standards that were identified were in particular aspects of subjects, particularly those relying on practical skills, such as in technology, information technology, art and music or on oral and aural skills in modern languages. Economics teachers thought their pupils had better mathematical skills and were more confident in analysis of data. Historians reported more sophisticated conceptional thought on sources and evidence.
Along with many others they believed that coursework had helped to improve the quality of work. Scientists refer to effective planning of experiments and projects and the "hands-on" approach to science as evidence of progress.
It is frustrating that we cannot wholly accept improved examination pass rates and the proportion of candidates achieving high grades as accurate evidence of rising standards.
The element of grade inflation, which most heads of department recognise, must not detract from acknowledgement of areas of improvement. Even the loudest detractors accept that schools do a good job in educating the top 10-15 per cent of the ability range: they all now achieve A or A* at GCSE and A or B at A-level.
However it is those who would previously have struggled with an A-level course who have been the principal beneficiaries of developments in teaching and examining. They have been helped in particular by the introduction of modular courses, but that is another story.
This year's comparative tables for A-level results in Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference schools gives the lie to the criticism that improved school performance has been achieved by refusing to enter weaker candidates.
Since last year the number of candidates has increased by 3 per cent and A-level subject entries by even more. Additionally, there has been a significant rise in the number of candidates for A and AS general studies.
The improvement in grades is up by 2 per cent and by 10 per cent over the average of the past five years. Candidates' points score is up by 8 per cent over that average. At GCSE there is a similar story.
Of course, improvements in grades cannot go on for ever: either new systems of grading or new tiers of exams will be introduced. At least we can be pleased with the highly increased participation of young people in courses leading to worthwhile qualifications; at best we have much more to celebrate.
Vivian Anthony is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.