Sunday, 2 January 2011

Examination Examination

Lovely to see that the Times has not given up university bashing as a New Year's Resolution. You may read today that "Universities will be forced to reveal their unofficial 'blacklists' of A-level subjects tutors believe to be substandard and that harm pupils' chances of winning places on top courses." Yes, in a feat of investigative journalism that would make Roger Cook quake in his boots it has been revealed that some universities think physics A-level is worth more than underwater basket-weaving.

Please, if you need to sit down for a moment to take this all in, I shall wait. Perhaps have a glass of water. Grip your armrest and breathe deeply. Ok? I shall move on.

David "Two Brains" Willets has suggested next year there will be legislation making this top secret information public. Apparently independent schools (those wicked institutions that save the Government billions of pounds a year and produce some of the most promising members of future adult generations) are getting an unfair advantage by knowing that there are hard and soft subjects, and generally which are which. Astounding.

The education education education lies perpetuated by the Labour Government continue to thrive. The main tenets being, everyone is getting cleverer, and the independent sector is bad and nasty. So scared are the Tories of looking like Tories they are unwilling to point to the enormous debt society owes to a) the independent schools and b) the parents who are willing to pay for them on top of their unused tax money for state education. However, that is a topic for another day.  The main point to pick out here is the dumbing down of all education to achieve improved targets.

People are getting thicker - or at least we are teaching them more poorly in the basics. Ask the recipients of the product of secondary education - employers and higher education. I've blogged about this before here. On top of that it is increasingly hard to tell between candidates of merit because of the numbers now packed into the farcically-easy-to-attain higher grades. Instead of making exams harder or marking them more strictly, we create super grades for 90% plus. On a side note - if ever there was a way of ensuring advantage to teach-to-the-test techniques so prevalent in rightfully aware independent schools it is this. Intelligent children in poorly taught classes in state schools stand a far lower chance of getting into the 90% bracket through the raw, untapped talent that could still have got them into the original A grade bracket.

It is woeful if headmasters, heads of 6th form and the like in state schools really don't know that there are such things as soft A-levels or that the Orwellian dictum that some are more equal than others is never more true than in today's A-levels. If that is the case, legislation is not needed. The Russell Group would, I am certain, be more than happy to provide a general ranking or grouping of A-levels based on the value they generally attribute to them.

However, I do not believe this is generally the problem. For every idiotic headmaster who cannot see that physics is more academically challenging than media studies and so will be given more weighting in admissions, there are an hundred who know it and choose media studies anyway. The reason - league tables and the target culture fostered under Labour.

So let us not criticise universities for trying to find the best to educate further, nor the schools clued in enough to steer their pupils to the harder subjects of better standing. The problem is the swathes of non-A-levels designed only to hit targets and the system that encourages schools to teach them. Reform this system and children at these schools will have a better chance at being taken seriously on application to university. The system should still allow pupils the freedom to choose less academic subjects, but should only reward the schools that produce the best educated pupils which is not necessarily the same as the ones with the highest marks.

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