Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A-levels and University

It's been reported that Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary has helped a local constituents child get into private school because there were no "suitable" state schools for the boy to go to. It's good to see that Alan Johnson doesn't have an automatic disgust at private schools, what is best for the child in the specific circumstances should always be paramount in education decisions, not some out of date obssessive and quasi-scienitific grand narrative of society.

This said, the story also comes on the back of the preemptive speech by Alan Johnson to close down the yearly debate of whether A-Levels and GCSEs are getting easier. The problem though is that achieving high grades - in a very broad sense - has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. However that should not denigrate the effort that kids actually put in.

The issue - as teachers have explained it to me - is that the structure and rules behind marking are what is causing the appearance of grade inflation. In many exams, answers are about showing known points of knowledge within the syllabus. That might mean, in say history, showing key facts about events you've been taught about. Deviation from the known syllabus however can effectively lose you marks.

If for example you're obssessed with Soviet political history (which I am), and you answer a question which spends time using things that are not wrong, but were not taught, to justify an argument on say Stalin, you may find yourself acheiving a low grade even though you've demonstrated a deep understanding of the topic.

However, it's important to recognise that the work students put in for A-Level is not getting easier or less as such. The problem is they're not being taugth the subject but rather being taught to pass the exams. The argument against this from the Left is that people are simply achieving more because schools have got so much better. If that is true then why do employers and universities say the opposite?

A cursory glance at the drop-out rate in the first year of University suggests that many who go are wasting a year of their lives unnecessarily. Surely it is right to ask questions about why, someone who apparently achieves at A-level, just can't hack it at undergraduate level?

Instead of concentrating on arbitrary targets for the number of people going to University (with it's rather apparent consequence on the structure of A-levels), perhaps we should concentrate on the number of people who actually finish? Who cares how many go to Uni, it doesn't matter. What matters is how many people don't drop out.

The International Baccalaureate may help solve the problems, however, a foreign language is a key component of such a qualification, and current Government policy is such that exposure to foreign lanague doesn't happen until a child is in their early teens. Unless there is a policy change which introduces foreign languages at primary level, it's unlikely the International Baccalaureate will ever be a realistic replacement for the A-level.


Anonymous said...

The government, a few years ago, changed the rules so now it is not compulsory to take at least one modern foreign language to GCSE level, which is a disgrace.

Anonymous said...

I know that, at least in Maths and Physics, the courses have got easier.

For example, in the late 1980's, calculus was on the O-level syllabus. You did it at 16. My brother-in-law recently got an A-level in maths and has never done calculus - at 18. He dropped out of his engineering degree. No wonder why.

And there is plenty of qunatitative research that backs up this example. In the numerate disciplines, the subject covered has been dramatically reduced and the structure of exams has been dramatically simplified. No more 10 mark questions, where if you don't know where to start, you loose all 10 marks. Questions are split into several parts now, and each part can be answered without being able to do the previous part. Also, exams are modular now - and each module does not require very much knolwedge of the previous one(s). You can effectively rope-learn the syllabus for each exam if the exams are sufficiently spread apart.

And if you don't believe me, I can find the links to the research... I just don't have them to hand right now.

Chris Palmer said...

I think you are wrong actually. It is not about how many "don't drop out" but how many do. High drop out levels can be highly beneficial - just look at the American system.

I would agree with ajd above. Physics certainly has (by far) become easier. 20 years ago, you had to learn all the formula yourself. Now? Now they give you every single one on the front of the paper. Pathetic.

dizzy said...

Actually Chris I think I agree with you as well. What I meant was that we should not concentrate on the number of of people netering Uni but instead care about how many finish because that is a better indicator. Now obviously that can be viewed in to way, the drop-out rate and the completion rate. Arguably they're two sides of the same coin though aren't they?