I’ve been trying to get my head around the reactions to the recent Times report that a lot of people who scored less than three D grades at A level are emerging from university with first-class degrees.
Predictably, some commentators saw this as further evidence that universities are dumbing down their degrees: the percentage of students awarded firsts has risen from 16 per cent to 27 per cent in the past six years. (You can hear the harsh voices: “In my day, it was fewer than 10 per cent”).
Allegedly cheap-as-chips first-class degrees (“unjustified”, in the words of secretary of state Damian Hinds) are not the only target of this story, however. Remember the Augar review’s recent suggestion that A-level candidates achieving low grades shouldn’t be permitted to go to university? There’s no point, it was argued: they won’t make a success of a degree course, they’ll accumulate unnecessary debt and waste three years. Unless, others might insinuate, they go to a university that awards Mickey Mouse degrees.
These parallel trains of thought appear to flow easily from one conclusion to another: but they’re about as correct as adding 2 + 2 to make 5. So let’s stop it right there, and try to unravel these tangled threads.
Is grade-inflation rampant in universities? Well, perhaps it deserves a look: but let’s not automatically assume it represents a decline. When I was an undergraduate, some 45 years ago, those of my contemporaries universally regarded as being sure-fire first material frequently missed out. I guess the university (Oxford, in my case) was jealously guarding its first-class portal. But I recall brilliant people with huge intellects crushed by the outcome on results day: just missing the coveted first removed any chance of a grant (remember those?) to continue to a PhD, almost inevitably denying them the opportunity of pursuing an academic career.
Credit to these A-level students
My favourite line in an Alan Bennett play comes (unsurprisingly, perhaps) from the headmaster in Forty Years On. Challenged by a thrusting young teacher who suggests that the standards he’s always banging on about are out of date, he replies (preferably in a John Gielgud voice): “Of course they’re out of date. That’s what makes them standards!"
When it comes to educational standards, we Brits remain hung up on the notion that only what is scarce can be valued. As schools get better and better at helping pupils to pass exams, the consequent rise in pass rates, far from being a cause for celebration, is seen as a problem. Exams must be made harder, we’re assured, so fewer pass: demand must exceed supply if results are to be valued.
There’s nothing wrong with overhauling exams from time to time, by the way: but when Michael Gove, as education secretary, introduced harder GCSEs, he also created the new 1-9 grading. This allows for higher, tougher grades to be added at the top end. Perniciously, it includes three grades at the bottom: designated worthless, they are nonetheless currently awarded to a third of 16 year-old English and maths candidates. Even a 4 is iffy: in our national psyche, there must be failures – the contrast serving to highlight the successes.
As for those A-level candidates gaining three Ds or less, currently they’re still permitted to proceed to higher education, where, to the horror of those self-appointed guardians of eternal standards, a quarter are winning firsts.
Before leaping to accusations of dumbing down, why not ponder how such success might occur? Few candidates achieving three Ds are likely to be overjoyed by the result, unless they’re keenly aware of having overcome significant hurdles to get even that far. Can we not give credit to those who then achieve highly at university, seizing what might constitute a second chance to fulfil their potential?
As we celebrate the 50th birthday of that beacon for lifelong learning, the Open University, it surely requires only a modicum of generosity of spirit to regard such candidates’ achievement not as a disaster, but as a triumph.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford