Continuing our series confronting enduring school myths, Adrian Elliott, a former headteacher and inspector, examines whether the educational bar is really being lowered.
The most common charge against modern schools is that standards have not risen and any supposed improvement has been due simply to examinations getting easier. Proponents of this view have gone to some lengths to prove their point.
Unfortunate 16-year-olds were whisked off to a mock 1950s grammar school by Channel 4 and given old O-level papers so their subsequent failure could be paraded before the nation. The Conservatives intend to publish exam papers back to Victorian days on its website, while comparisons of old and new papers appear regularly in the national press.
Yet such exercises have a number of flaws, which seem obvious - remarkably so - given the stress placed by those responsible on academic rigour. I am not referring to the sheer dishonesty of giving pupils four weeks' preparation for exam papers for which the original candidates had two years, or the common practice of comparing the toughest questions from the past and the easiest ones from modern papers. No, much more significant - and fallacious - is the assumption that the standards of national cohorts of children can be judged entirely by exam questions.
Surely, two other factors are at least as significant: what proportion of these cohorts actually sat the exams? And how well did they cope? The answers, in the so-called golden age of the 1950s, were not very many and pretty badly.
Only the very brightest pupils sat O- or A-levels then - a fraction of the numbers who now sit public exams - and yet they failed in droves. Examiners were unimpressed by the efforts of this select group. Particularly striking is their concern about the large numbers who simply should never have been entered for the examinations, at both levels.
In 1957, an English literature O-level report concluded that "too many candidates . were unable to understand the question paper", while a 1960 A-level maths report also complained that "many candidates clearly had no understanding of the subject matter of most questions". A literature O- level report in 1956 noted that "whole groups are entered in which no more than a quarter have any chance of passing".
Crucially, the examiners stressed these were not isolated instances. They were discussing, remember, England's brightest youngsters. Yet if the top set in an average comprehensive school today were to be prepared for a 1950s O-level paper, would a quarter fail? And most modern top sets contain a wider range of ability than grammar schools in the past.
Furthermore, were papers in the past really as difficult as their selective use by national newspapers suggests? Dr Peter Knight, a university vice-chancellor, comments that a "great wodge of the material I did at A-level (maths) is no longer on the syllabus and rightly so: some of the material regarded as degree level in the 1960s is now on the A- level syllabus".
English language O-level papers would appear laughable to its target group today, the brightest 20 per cent. Essay titles from the 1959 paper, which I sat, included "Pleasures of life in a large town", "Washing day" and "Coach tours". Candidates were asked to explain the meaning of "humility" and show the alternative meanings of words such as "vice" and "lap". Is this truly beyond today's brightest 16-year-olds?
Even if critics were correct and examinations had become easier, this would hardly "prove" that overall standards had dropped. One would need to determine by how much the standard had fallen in relation to the numbers taking the exam. If a GCSE grade C is really easier to obtain today than a pass at O-level in 1960, is it twice, three or four times as easy? A fourfold difference seems unlikely, implying a modern student achieving 80 per cent at GCSE, prepared properly for the O-level examination, would only get 20 per cent.
Yet the number of students achieving five or more GCSEs at grade C or above is now more than eight times the number getting five O-levels before the spread of comprehensive education. This increase cannot possibly be explained away by any "lowering" of the standard of the examination.
Detailed, subject-by-subject research by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its successor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), has not shown evidence of the wholesale slippage in standards assumed so readily by critics. Cambridge Assessment has looked at standards over time in both key stage 2 and key stage 4 English. It found that "the experimental evidence from all subjects and key stages indicated that there has been a substantial real improvement in children's achievement". Although they thought national tests had exaggerated the extent of the improvement (due to teaching to the test), there had still been "significant gains in achievement".
Another comparison by Cambridge Assessment of GCSE English scripts of 2004 with those of 1993 and 1994, and with O-level scripts in 1980, indicated an overall improvement in standards. Spelling was better in 1980 than in either the 1990s or in 2004, but in all other respects - content, writing, vocabulary and punctuation - the scripts of 2004 were better than those of 1993 and 1994, and as good (if not better) than those of 1980, when far fewer pupils took the examination. Significantly, the improvements had taken place at all levels, not just among the brightest pupils.
Those who say there has been no real improvement in school standards also seem to happily ignore half the population. Can critics really deny that the educational levels achieved by girls have risen massively over the past 30 to 50 years? The reasons may lie partly beyond the school gates, but there is overwhelming evidence that girls have made enormous progress at every stage from pre-primary to higher education. Furthermore, international studies have demonstrated that one of the biggest determinants of a child's success at school is the educational level attained by its mother, especially in higher secondary education.
The percentage of girls achieving A-levels rose almost 400 per cent from the cohort born in the 1940s to that of the 1960s, most the products of comprehensive education. Many of the latter now have children who have taken, or are approaching, GCSEs or A-levels. In the light of this, why is it so surprising that there has been an explosion both in the numbers taking public examinations and of those achieving higher grades? For all the allegations of deliberately lowered standards, the improvement was predictable and should surely be welcomed and built upon.
Adrian Elliott is the author of `State Schools Since the 1950s: the Good News' (Trentham Books)
Next week "Competitive sports and setting are frowned on in state schools as elitist"
And the results are in.
- In 1959, around 9 per cent of 16-year-olds got five or more O-levels. In 2009, the proportion gaining five or more GCSEs was 70 per cent.
- Essay titles in the English O-level paper in 1959 included "Pleasures of life in a large town", "Washing day" and "Coach tours".
- Essay titles in the 2009 OCR English GCSE included: "How do you present different images of yourself in different situations and why do you do so?"
- A recent survey showed that most 55- to 65-year-olds lack the maths skills expected of a nine-year-old today.
- An examiners' report on O-level English literature in 1956 noted that "whole groups are entered in which no more than a quarter have any chance of passing".
This year's OCR examiners' report on English GCSE stated that examiners were "very impressed with the overall quality of the entry in this session and there was general agreement that standards were higher than on any other occasion". It added: "Many grizzled examiners found themselves astonished at the levels of emotional maturity and sophisticated understanding displayed by 15- and 16-year-old candidates in a 45-minute exam."