Saturday, August 19, 2006


Here's a good comment on the annual gripe-fest that is the A-level results season.
Ministers are hesitant about accepting the case for A* grades, and rightly so. They know that, given the stubborn links between family background and exam achievement, the grade is most likely to be achieved by children from better-off homes. An A* would, to put it crudely, stop the masses from getting ideas above their station.

Those who favour the new grade argue, in effect, that A-levels have ceased to be effective rationing devices because they no longer allow the elite universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, to cherry-pick the best candidates. But Oxford and Cambridge have no obvious right to the brightest students. Some of the cleverest might benefit from other universities, including those with a more vocational bent. Why do we think it necessary to organise our entire exam system around the selection of a tiny proportion of the population for a highly academic education and privileged lifestyle at Oxford or Cambridge?

There are many things wrong with A-levels - too narrow, too specialist, too academic - but the lack of an A* grade isn't one of them.
Shouldn't exam results show what people have learned and not be part of a bigger rationing process for entry to prestigious (prestigious as in "held in high esteem" and as in "knavish") professions and institutions? Personally I failed most of my A-levels because I was bored and wanted to read stuff totally unrelated to my courses (I was doing Economics, Geography and Pure Mathematics and Statistics but spent months reading philosophy books and Bertrand Russell's autobiography). Thankfully I scraped through in Maths which led onto an HND in Computer Studies. But that is just me, I just wanted to read books, think and write an occasional essay. And didn't want any of the formal assessment that went with an A-level course. Some might say it's intellectual laziness. Others might say it's just laziness. Yup. Guilty.

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