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A-levelling up?

nick cowen, 19 August 2011

In our report, Swedish Lessons (2008), we described a troubling rate of grade inflation:

Results from the ALIS project use the International Test of Developed Abilities to compare the attainment of pupils from year to year. Taking an average of 40 A-level subjects, Robert Coe found that those scoring 50 per cent on the ITDA test in 1997 would tend to achieve low C-grades, but by 2005 were achieving low B-grades. Essentially, a B-grade of today is worth, in general ability terms, the C-grade of around ten years ago.


Were this simply a matter of grade inflation resulting in the same qualifications not being comparable from year to year, this issue would be of little concern. But the problem is not grade inflation in itself but what it shows about the education system. What has happened is that proficiency at passing GCSEs and A-levels has become progressively detached from general abilities that are useful for higher education, employment and life skills generally. This would be considered more of a problem, were the priorities of the system to develop the knowledge and abilities of pupils. But it is not. In a case of the tail wagging the dog, the ability to pass the exams themselves has become the priority and the thing for teachers and pupils to concentrate on. Unfortunately, the ability to pass a specific set of exams at the ages of 16 and 18 does not, in itself, contribute to real economic productivity or happiness and fulfilment in life. (p. 48)

In essence, this problem remains today although there are signs that we may have turned a corner. One of the most insidious consequences of concentrating on A-level grades alone is the way that schools were incentivised to push students towards ‘soft subjects’ where high grades are more attainable, but the knowledge acquired is less useful. Now it appears that some traditionally tough subjects are making a return.

I am not sure if any government policy can be praised for this shift. More likely, it is the growing realisation amongst students and their families that choice of subjects impacts on their prospects for entering university courses, and their future employment opportunities. The squeeze on university places and the recession may have played a role. The job market is not looking as rosy as a few years ago, and some students may be adapting by concentrating on gaining more impressive qualifications.

2 comments on “A-levelling up?”

  1. I have recently had occasion to go through some Physics and Maths GCSE papers and I have been shown an A level physics paper.

    My comparisons are with those papers which I took in the late 1950s. There is no comparison – the recent papers ae a great deal easier. What is more, we had to write legibly and use competent English.

    I have colleaguies who mark A level papers. The papers submitted by Asian students from the far east are a great deal more competent and knowledgeable, not to mention legible.

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