English education has suffered greatly from its politicisation in the liberal internationalist interest, but even more fundamental damage was done by progressive teaching methods which failed to provide many children with an adequate grasp the three ‘Rs’ (and left a depressing number either completely illiterate or what is coyly called “functionally illiterate”, while most are unable to do simple arithmetic and lack any sense of number or proportion, so that they have no idea whether the sums they poked into their calculators produced answers which were correct.
The most obvious consequence of the gradual decline in educational standards was an erosion in exam quality. At first it was small things. Practical exams for science O Levels were dropped. Then came multiple choice questions. The curricula in all subjects shrank. New, less academic subjects such as media studies found their way into the exam system and elbowed the academic aside. Eventually came the ultimate corruption of the exam system with the introduction of continuous assessment. With the fall in school standards, the universities and polytechnics inevitably had to drop their standards.
The corruption of exam standards was further driven by a desire to expand the numbers of children passing school exams and the numbers going on to Higher Education. To this end O Levels and the old CSE exams for less able pupils were abolished in the 1980s and replaced with the General Certificate of Education (GCSE). Around the same time a decision was made to vastly increase the numbers of students in Higher Education. To make this policy more attractive to would-be students, the polytechnics were renamed universities in 1992, with the consequence that more than 100 institutions with that title were suddenly competing for students, with as we shall see later, evil effects.
The consequence of having a single exam (GCSE) for all 16 year olds was predictable: to prevent embarrassing numbers of failures, the standard of the new exam had to be reduced below that of the already much less demanding O Levels of the 1980s (even so, in 2005 around 30 per cent of children fail to gain five GCSEs at C grade or higher.) The upshot was that the GCSE candidates either left school at 16 lacking even the rudiments of education needed to fill run-of-the-mill jobs – many are functionally illiterate and even more lack basic numeracy – or entered A Level courses woefully under-prepared, especially in subjects such as maths. A Levels and degree courses were again, of necessity, reduced in standard to adapt to pupils and students who were substantially under-prepared compared with those arriving under the pre-GCSE examination regime.
At the same time as standards were eroding, the Tories introduced in the 1980s the madness of league tables and targets. The consequence of these – not just in education but generally – is to distract from the actual purpose of what an organisation is supposed to do and to promote dishonesty in the pursuit of attaining the targets and showing well in league tables.
The league tables provoked even more tampering with the academic standards of school exams as examination boards competed with one another to produce the “best” results, that is, ever higher pass rates and grades and schools chose the examination board most likely to give them ostensible examination success.
The response of both politicians and educationalists to the inexorable rise in GCSE and A Level results since GCSE was introduced has been to hail them as evidence that educational standards are continually rising. Such claims have the same relationship to reality as Soviet figures for the turnip harvest or tractor production. All that has happened is that both the difficulty of exams and the severity of marking has been reduced. In 2004 an A Grade in GCSE Maths from Edexcel, one of the largest exam boards, could be gained with 45 per cent (Daily Telegraph 18 9 2004), while a “B” grade at one Board in 2004 (OCR) could be a obtained with a mere 17 per cent (Sunday Telegraph 16 1 2005). (When challenged about lowered grade marks, those setting the exams claim that the questions are becoming more difficult.) Course work, which counts towards the overall exam mark, is reported as being either routinely plagiarised from the Web or showing other evidence of being other than the pupil’s unaided work.
In addition to the lowering of exam marks and the fraud of continuous assessment, school exams have begun to shift from final tests to modular exams which are taken throughout the course. Hence, pupils on such courses never take an exam which tests them on their entire course.
Of course, all this change to school exams, combined with the introduction of the national curriculum tests, creates a great deal of extra work for teachers and distracts them from the actual task of teaching – pupils are tested at 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. It has also spawned a truly monstrous examination bureaucracy, which according to a recent report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (a state body) costs £610 million per year (Daily Telegraph 14 2 2005) and has left the country desperately scrabbling around for examiners.
The frequent complaints of university teachers about the inadequacy of the students coming to them and the even more vociferous complaints of employers about applicants who lack competence in even the three “Rs” are pretty substantial straws in the wind suggesting a general educational failure. My own direct experience of youngsters all too often bears out such complaints – I find especially depressing recent graduates with good degrees from top universities who are bizarrely ignorant of their degree subjects and poorly equipped to research or analyse.
The universities also joined in the grade inflation caucus race. I went to University in the late sixties. In those days – when less than 10% of UK school-leavers went to university – Oxford and Cambridge awarded around 40% of undergraduates the top two degree classifications . The newer universities were much stingier, many awarding only 4-5% of firsts and 30% of upper seconds. They did this to establish their credibility. Now it is common for universities to award firsts to more than 15% of undergraduates and firsts and upper seconds to two thirds of those who graduate. A recent (I Jan 2011) Sunday Telegraph investigation discovered “The universities awarding the highest proportion of firsts or 2:1s last year were Exeter, where 82 per cent of graduates received the top degrees compared with just 29 per cent in 1970, and St Andrews – Scotland’s oldest university, where Prince William met fiancée Kate Middleton – where the figure was also 82 per cent compared with just 25 per cent in 1970.
There was some grade inflation before the late eighties but it was small compared with what has happened since. Until, the late eighties universities received their funding in the form of a block grant from a government body called the Universities Grants Committee ((UGC) This meant there was no temptation to inflate degree awards because the money did not follow the individual student. The UGC was scrapped in 1989 and the money attached to each individual student. This changed the relationship between the university and student from being one where the student was seen as just that to one where the student became primarily a bringer of money. This relationship changed again with first the abolition of grants and then the introduction of fees which made placed the student in the position of customer.
Anecdotes are always tricky as evidence, so let us consider an objective fact which explains why widespread educational incompetence is inevitable in the circumstances which have been created. IQ is normally distributed within a population, that is it forms a Bell Curve with most people clustering in the middle of the curve and a few people at the extremes of the curve. Such a distribution means that the proportion of the population with IQs substantially above the average is quite small – approximately 25 per cent of the UK population have IQs of 110 or more. Now, it is true that IQ as a measure of academic success is not infallible, not least because motivation is necessary as well as intellect. But what is true is that a decent IQ is necessary for academic success. Put another way, someone with an IQ of 150 may or may not take a First in maths: someone with an IQ of 90 never will.
The way IQ is distributed means that the ideal of an exam suited to everyone (GCSE) is a literal nonsense, because that which would test the brightest would be beyond the large majority and even that which the majority could cope with would be beyond those in the lower part of the ability range. The grades awarded for GCSE bear this out. The large numbers of those getting the top marks mean that the exam is too easy for the brightest, while the 30 per cent or so of school-leavers who cannot attain 5 passes at C grade or better tell you it is too difficult for the lower part of the academic ability continuum.
A similar problem of fitting exams to a very wide ability range has affected universities. Tony Blair set a target of 50 per cent of either school-leavers or people under the age of 28 (the target seems to move) to be in Higher Education – at the beginning of 2005 the percentage is over 40 per cent. Blair’s target meant that many of those at university will have mediocre IQs.
Let us assume for the sake of simplicity that 50 per cent of school-leavers is the target rather than 50 per cent of those under 28. There are only around 25 per cent of people with IQs of 110 or higher in any age group. If every one of those 25 per cent went to university (50 per cent of those scheduled to go to university if the Blair target is met) it would still leave the other half of those going to university to be found from those with IQs of less than 109. Hence, with 50 per cent of school-leavers at university, at least half the people taking degrees would have, as a matter of necessity, moderate IQs. In fact, the position is worse than that, because significant numbers of those with IQs substantially above average will not go to university. That means even more than 50 per cent of students would have moderate IQs. Trying to set degree courses suitable for people with, say, IQs ranging from 90-160 cannot be a practical proposition.
The coalition government has not committed themselves to Blair’s 50% target but neither have they said it will not the reached or even exceeded, the Government line being anyone who wants to go to universitty should go.
The upshot of all this is that the better universities can no longer trust an A at A Level to be a true reflection of excellence because so many people are awarded As and a new A* grade has been introduced in the hope that it will distinguish outstanding candidates. However, this is unlikely to be a long-term solution as it is a sound bet that A* will be awarded in ever greater numbers.