Posted tagged ‘‘A’ Levels’

And this is how it’s playing in the UK

March 3, 2010

Just as we are getting ourselves all worked up about grades in Irish schools and higher education institutions, the issue has also come up again in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party’s education spokesperson Michael Gove has drawn attention to some research apparently conducted by Durham and Coventry universities (though I have not been able to find any direct details of this) which, he says, shows that it was ‘easier to secure good pass marks at A level now than a generation ago.’

Whether this accurately describes the research is something that we will need to check when details of the study are released, but in the meantime the Tory Party is proposing certain steps which may have a significant impact on universities. What Michael Gove is suggesting is that the universities should be charged with setting the curriculum and the examinations for A levels:

‘So we will take control of the A-level syllabus and question-setting process out of the hands of bureaucrats and instead empower universities, exam boards and learned societies with the task of ensuring these qualifications are rigorous. The aim of the next Conservative Government will be to have a school examination system which is the most rigorous in the world, safeguarded by the nation’s guardians of academic excellence.’

It is difficult to see exactly how this would work, but on the other hand it would be interesting to consider how universities, which often rightly complain that the final school examinations don’t properly prepare students for higher education, might influence the curriculum to overcome issues that now affect secondary education. Perhaps there might be some merit in having this discussion in Ireland.

Dumbing down?

February 28, 2009

Earlier this month in Britain, the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was reported as saying that students who would have failed A-level mathematics in the 1980s were now ‘easily passing’ because of dumbing down under the British Labour Government. At almost exactly the same time researchers from the Institute of Technology in Tralee who had conducted a study on educational standards in Ireland reported that there was considerable grade inflation in Irish universities and colleges and concluded:

Grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards. Weaknesses inherent in the assessment process at third level have enabled an increasing divergence between academic performance and grades awarded.

The kind of evidence used by the Tralee team was that ‘in 1994 the percentage of first class honours awarded across the universities was 7%. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 17%.’

Complaints about grade inflation and falling standards are not new. In Britain they began to get serious circulation in the 1990s, so that every year when A-level results were issued and showed any improvements at all there were immediate shouts of dumbing down. We are now getting similar complaints about higher education.

Most people making such assertions are doing so on rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence. Students getting better results could be put down to one of any number of reasons: under pressure from parents and teachers, students may actually be working harder, teaching could be better, rising entry requirements by universities and the competition for places could be driving students to prepare more for exams; and so forth. Also, if the standards of final school examinations were slipping the universities would see this immediately through falling standards at third level and the need for more remedial teaching in first year. That this hasn’t happened (except in cases where entry points requirements have been lowered) suggests that the charge of dumbing down is not a good one.

If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates. In fact while there may recently have been a shortage of graduates in some sectors, there have been no suggestions that the quality of those coming through is lower than in the past; often the reverse is stated.

If we are targeting better performance by students leading to better results, as we are, we should resist the temptation to assume that something has gone wrong when those better results materialise. It may be the opposite, standards may be rising. From my experience, students nowadays work much harder and are much more aware of the impact of their results on their job prospects. You would expect them to work harder and get better results, which is what has happened.

I believe that changes to the curriculum and working methods at secondary schools are needed fairly urgently, and there is always room for a discussion about higher quality education at third level. But this objective is undermined when we start talking about dumbing down as being the obvious and necessary cause of higher grades. That is a sloppy use of facts and data, and at the very least needs a better qualitative analysis of the reasons for (as distinct from just the fact of) better examination results.

Customised education?

February 5, 2009

During my last two years at school (which dedicated readers of this blog will know were spent in Germany) I took what now seems to me to have been an amazing array of courses, including the usual core subjects but also including ones like philosophy, political science, constitutional law, international trade, physics, chemistry, biology, botany and theology. Looking back at my examination materials (some of which I still have – and I have to confess I didn’t take these yesterday), the standards in some of these were very high, not unlike what I would now expect from a first year university programme. Some of my German friends tell me that it’s all different now and that standards are much lower, but at any rate what I enjoyed was a significant educational experience.

When I then began to study law in Trinity College Dublin, I shared the course with those who had done the Leaving Certificate, and others who had done ‘A’ Levels. While the Leaving Certificate was also quite broad (though less so than the German Abitur), it amazed me to see how specialised ‘A’ Levels were, and how early therefore young people were required, in the UK, to make choices about the direction they wanted to pursue.

‘Customised’ education – where special choices can be made or perhaps have to be made – has become an increasingly normal feature of our times. The US Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that doubts were now being expressed about the extent to which Law degree programmes are being offered with a customised slant (Law with Marketing, Law with Clinical Psychology, and so forth), and suggested that ‘going to Law School to get a law degree has become a little like going to an ice-cream parlor for a scoop of vanilla’ with ‘elaborate flavor-and-topping menus’ [Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9 2009].

The question this poses is whether we want our higher education (and education generally) to focus on the things we want to be specialists in, or whether it should provide a broader grounding. More generally, there are major questions to be answered about the degree to which education provides skills or disseminates knowledge, or how both objectives can be combined in a manner that is both intellectually honest and functionally effective. Such questions are being asked and debated by educational specialists, but not in the academy at large; they are themselves specialist topics for those interested in pedagogy, rather than issues for all those involved in teaching and learning.

I suspect that the strategy processes we are about to embark upon will leave all this untouched – but they shouldn’t, and maybe they won’t.