Tom Bennett

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A-Levels: Did they get easier? A multi-choice.


Hazy days have passed since A-level results so it doesn’t feel ghoulish to gnaw on a few mouldy bones and see what kind of soup we can make from the stock. Results day has visited, eaten the scones and fled, and like an enormous Sorting Hat for attractive, spring-heeled Cotswolds dryads (‘A lawyer you shall be!’ ‘A civil servant!’ ‘Ah, alas you shall be an educational blogger’) destinies have been ordained or ossified to the rustle of Manilla envelopes.

The time has come, though, to speak of other things (insert joke about cabbages getting into King’s here). The A-level pass rate now stands at 98%, and has been rising for thirty years. The % of entries resulting in an A or higher has also been climbing steadily for decades. And now turn away, reader: it has stalled, nay it has nose dived….by an astounding 0.4% this year. IT’S A MASSACRE. This is because Ofqual has ‘advised’ exam boards to ‘err on the conservative side’ to tackle what Glenys Stacey described as ‘persistent grade inflation.’

There’s been a lot of heat and light generated in this debate for as long as I can remember: what can explain this relentless ascent that has characterised A-level results for over a generation in education? Forget aping the Finns and robbing the tuck shops of Singapore- we have F*CKING CRACKED IT ALL BY OURSELVES. They should be watching us, feeling their undercarriages stirred by strange, primitive, envious passions, not the reverse. What could explain this scenario of success, this rags to royal robes story? There are three options:

1. Kids got smarter. 

YOU MAY SCOFF. But this is a theory that has been shuffling around for a while, looking embarrassed to be at the party. Some have said that children have actually become  brainier since the war. You may be familiar with the Flynn effect, the rather odd phenomena where IQ scores have been genuinely increasing year on year, for many years. It reminds me of the old pulp comic description of Superman’s home world Krypton, ‘A planet where men and women have reached near physical and mental perfection.’ Maybe that’s us; maybe, like Olympic records, the mental benchmarks are being hurdled and vaulted by successively intelligent generations?

But no. All the evidence we have supports the theory that our brains haven’t changed in any significant way for many tens of thousands of decades- as we would expect from the Vatican-slow creep of evolutionary process. And the Flynn effect has levelled off in the developed countries, suggesting that other factors were behind the data- better nutrition, better schooling and so on, all benefiting the bottom end of the IQ scale and raising the average, along with greater familiarity with test-taking. Besides, species-wide change in genotype is measured with millenia, in human lifespans, not the heart beat of a few generations. We’re not yeast.

No, they haven’t become smarter. Not year on year, year after year. I’ve been in this game for a decade. The kids aren’t smarter. Honestly.

2. Teaching has improved. 

Fifty shades of grade.

I refer you to my previous answer: I’ve been in the game for at decade, and I’ve worked with people who have worked for far longer. Teaching has not improved by an average 0.5% every year, without fail. It just hasn’t. Nor have schools improved by the same amount. There have been great improvements made in some aspects of British education since the war, but significant gains in the way we teach? Not a bit of it. I can barely name an initiative- or at least I can count on two hands- that has made any real difference to the way we educate children. Personalised learning, independent learning, group learning, emotional intelligence, three part lessons, WALT and WILF….almost everything has been as transformational and innovative as an antimacassar, a homoeopathic syringe of magic water spunked secretly and uselessly into the canteen mashed potato.

I only have ten years’ perspective; I can say without a trace of doubt, that teaching has not improved in the last ten years. If anything, I’d say the micro-management, the Soviet levels of reduction and reification and form-filling have damaged our ability to deliver anything  meaningful, but I don’t need to prove that. I just need to make the claim that it hasn’t improved.

3. There has been sorcery in the way we examine our students.

When I say sorcery, I’m being kind. You’ll notice my opening quote from Glenys Stacey. She’s the HEAD OF OFQUAL. You’ll remember the scandal last April when the telegraph exposed the common practice of teacher seminars given by exam boards where ‘clues’ were given out like Easter Eggs to the content of the exams; the admission by exam salesmen that their syllabuses had ‘better’ pass rates (ie they were easier), and the whole bloody Eton mess of having competition between exam boards, which, being instruments of a market, were pressured to create survival advantages that would encourage their success.

To test this hypothesis, one good approach would be, of course, to look at exam papers from thirty years ago and exam papers today. They would have shown some kind of dissolution into ease, wouldn’t they? And they do. they do. Compare maths, english, science, with their ancestors, and if you think they’re anything other than substantially easier, then I have some real estate on the Moon I’d like to offer you.Essay style questions have been reduced across the board; questions have been chunked into smaller fragments; multiple choice options have been accentuated. And of course, modules have been introduced, which enables greater possibility of incremental resitting.

Schools are now ruthlessly judged by their data; their place on league tables. Bean counters have this odd belief that in order to be healthy, a school examination record must show incremental improvements over time, as if they were some kind of odd balance sheets. This is surely one of the most vicious misinterpretations of schooling of them all. It’s weird enough demanding infinitely expanding success in business, but at least there you have shareholders and dividends to fluff and nurse. What’s the excuse for this devilish model in schools? Whatever it is (and I suspect the answer is simply ‘Because we’re stupid and a bit greedy’), it has been the spur and goad of the metrification, and subsequent mortification, of the schools. It has reduced us from a profession to a sector.


And to anyone who gets their knickers in a twist, seeing this as some kind of attack on the children or teachers, some kind of dismissal of their efforts, who think that criticising the process by which our children are graded and sorted is a simultaneous attack on the months of perspicacity and perspiration that lead up to the Manilla certificates, well, I’d ask them to explain how we are meant to proceed? Should we refuse to talk about global warming because it might disarm our infants of the belief that Santa lives at the North Pole?

So, option 1,2,3. Take your pick. 

Dear Santa Gove: this Christmas I would like…

‘The cheeky f*cker!’

Dear Santa Gove

I know a lot of people say that you’re not real; I know a lot of people don’t believe in you at all. But in the spirit of Christmas, here’s my wish -list for the teaching profession (and myself) this year. I’ve addressed it to Mossbourne Academy, because that’s where you seem to be the most.

1. An OfSTED inspection followed by a Section 48 Inspection where I get graded Outstanding each time OH YEAH I FORGOT I ALREADY GOT THAT THIS WEEK DAMN BETTER NOT MENTION IT

Sorry, got that out of my system now, I promise.

2. A unified Exam Board, or at least exam boards that don’t whorishly lie back and whisper how easy they are, to tempt a stream of suitors into their boudoirs. The exam system has been exposed this week, in a series of shocking revelations that many teachers, myself included, can only describe as No Shit, Sherlock? Exam boards compete with each other for market share, you say? Surely not! This is the worst kept secret in education. I used to mark for different exam boards, and I was shocked by how easy it was to be recruited- fill out a form or two and you’re in. Training was all online, and moderation was done in a suspiciously positive way (‘I think you’re being a bit harsh’ etc). What was even odder was that I was asked- repeatedly- to mark papers in areas where I had clearly expressed that I wasn’t qualified. Of course, I declined, but it doesn’t say much for the ‘stringency’ that an exam spokesman expressed this week. Sir, you have BALLS in your mouth.

The new AQA reps, yesterday.

38,000 papers in England and Wales were regraded this year after teachers asked. 38,000! When 100 people say you’re dead, lie down. When 38,000 people say you’re dead….well, lie down, I guess.

I’ve already blogged about grade inflation (here), but I can confirm a few things: I have heard of examiners passing on ‘tips’ at ‘training sessions’, and I know teachers who have been told what ‘might’ come up. But even without empirical evidence, it stands to reason, by all that’s holy, that when you have several boards all selling their products, the pressure to compete, however fractionally, is overwhelming. They would have to be moral paragons NOT to do it- that, or not-for-profit organisations. Aw, shucks, they are. It is planning for disaster to create a situation where boards compete; it is the point where the market must be absent; when quality is required, not utility or quantity. Capitalism is a fabulous tool for achieving many things, but when it comes to values like integrity and academic rigour, it can f*ck off.

They can’t massively outbid each other, of course- too obvious. So they slack off, year by year, eyeing each other like perverts in a car park, careful not to lunge ahead of the pack. Which would result in a gradual year-on-year improvement in grades. Goodness, which is exactly what we’ve got.

So, Santa, nationalise the buggers please.

2. Stop worrying about Finland, for Christ’s sake. Finland is Finland. Let them worry about how they teach their kids. Stop comparing grades with other countries, like some anxious willy-watcher in the Leicester Square lavvies. How on earth can different country’s grades be compared when- and I say this with some patience- WE DON’T SIT THE SAME EXAMS. I’m no statistician (I use tongs rather than handle the filthy thing) but the last time I looked, trying to divide bananas by porcupines simply left you looking stupid, and your fruit bowl looking somewhat ghoulish. Pisa says we’re falling behind. Others, like the TIMMS tests say we’re just dandy.

‘Now I like Ed Balls….’

Now, I like Pisa. But I also like TIMMS. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…..


CHILL the FUCK OUT about Pisa, Santa.

3. Remove the requirement that schools that exclude pupils have to suffer their exam grades in the hereafter, AND have to fund their places at their destination schools. You say you’re interested in behaviour? Well, Holy Smokes, me too (check my nick-name if you don’t believe me). That’s because there is NOTHING more pressing in education right now than helping teachers and schools get behaviour sorted. And to be fair, you’ve made many encouraging moves in this direction. But then you blow a hole in the bloody boat by adding that cowardly clause at the end. There is nothing more certain to discourage a school from excluding a pupil than the treat of financial impediment. Schools are propelled by money, and they will do many, many things before they will wave good bye to a £5,000 cheque, even if it does mean holding on to a mentalist and ruining it for others who value education enough not to tell their teachers to go fuck themselves.

4. While you’re at it, how about we INVEST in a few special schools, eh? All these pupils I want to exclude (and it isn’t many) need to go somewhere. Right now they just get passed round LEAs like some particularly vile version of pass the parcel, only instead of a parcel it’s a dog turd.

They need somewhere meaningful to go. That means specialist provision, in institutions run by people who are trained to deal with extreme spectrum behaviour AND are good teachers. Yes, that DOES sound expensive, doesn’t it? Tough. If you’re interested in social mobility (and I am) then you’ll want to prevent all those lovely drop-outs turning into NEETS, and you know how many NEETS end up with the title ‘Prisoner’ before their name, don’t you? You know, those frightful coves smashing up Tescos last Summer? Them.

5. Brainwave, Santa! How about we acknowledge that automatic deference from children is a long-gone social institution, and train teachers properly, which means in SCHOOLS and UNIVERSITY together. And focus on behaviour management just as much as bloody Thinking Hats and Multiple Intelligences, for God’s sake.


6. While we’re at it, let’s have an end to the stream of bullshit and cant that pours from academia into teaching. Let’s put social science back where it belongs- as a commentary on the human condition, not pretending it’s a predictive natural science. That way we can stop guff like learning styles and Brain Gym before they even get to the classroom, and we can mothball catechisms of the education establishment like the Cult of Group Work and the Three Part Lesson. Just because we want to put a genie in a bottle, doesn’t mean it can be done. Just because we can measure something doesn’t make it important.

7. Also, a pony.

That’ll do for now. I may think of some other things I’d like. If I do, I’ll let you know. Merry Christmas.


It’s exam time again! But don’t mention the grade inflation.

‘You can feel exams getting easier’.

Glenys Stacey is upset about Grade Inflation. She’s not upset that it’s happening; she just doesn’t like the term. She thinks it’s ‘unhelpful’

Who is Glenys Stacey? She’s the Chief Executive of OfQual, the body who ‘regulate general and vocational qualifications in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland,’ that’s who. Or in other words, she’s in charge of ensuring that examinations are fair, rigorous and properly administered. And what is Grade Inflation? It’s the idea that, over time, the effort and ability required to achieve a given level of attainment will reduce slowly. In other words, exams are getting easier. You might have heard it described as ‘dumbing down’ although that syndrome is an alleged symptom in many other areas than education. (See: ITV News.)

So why is she upset with the term? “I don’t find ‘grade inflation’ to be a very helpful expression,” she says.  ‘Inflation’ has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.”

Grade Inflation

‘Grade inflation; urgh!’

Well, we can’t have that, so in deference to Ms Stacey’s feelings to wards the term grade inflation, I’ll keep references to grade inflation to a minimum from now on. But is grade inflation actually happening? Well, let’s take a look at what the chaps with white coats call ‘the facts’:

  • Between 1997 and 2007, the pass rate for 5 GCSEs went from 45% to 56%
  • In the early 80s, 22% of students achieved at least a C in O-level maths. In 2009 it was 57% (GCSE).
  • GCSE results have been rising consistently for the last twenty years.
  • The pass rate for A levels was 68% in 1982; in 2009 it was 97.5%.  Hoorah!

I could go on, but I don’t need to. On paper at least, the pass rates for examinations are increasing at a fabulous rate, raising the very real possibility that by the year 2025, 150% of all students will achieve better than A* at A level, and more than the entire population of the planet will leave higher education with a Phd. And 100% of all students tested will be above average.

Have I mentioned Grade Inflation?

Why is Ms Stacey so cagey about the term grade inflation? Because ‘in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.’ Oh, we may well indeed. Perhaps that explains all the gains? Let’s have a closer look at that point of view. In order for it to be the case, we would need to see the following things happening:

1. Pupils actually getting smarter.

This is your kid, now.

Well, I suppose it’s possible, in the same way that it’s possible that Osama Bin Laden is playing water polo with Megatron in the lost city of Atlantis. It’s possible. But kids getting smarter? Really? Well, well, well, someone call me an evolutionary biologist because there appears to be something strange happening inside the hinterland of our brains that is without parallel in the history of our species, large black monoliths notwithstanding.

I’ve heard people say (well, Boris Johnson) that this is perfectly possible; that Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile, and everyone wet their knickers at the novelty of it all; that Hillary and Tenzing high-fived each other at the summit of Everest, and it was the second biggest news of the day; but now my nan’s nan can run the four minute mile, apparently, and there are so many visitors to the top of Chomalungma you could operate a scone shop at a reasonable profit. The first runner who managed a marathon (arriving conveniently at Marathon) pegged it with the exertion. Nowadays Jimmy Saville and men in diving suits manage it. Truly we live in the age of supermen, of the casually miraculous. Why not in the realm of smarts?

But it’s not the same. Sure, there have been enormous gains in the physical realms in the last century, but these are down to a few, easily identified factors: better diets; professional training programs; sports science that enables the very keen to focus their every effort on the razor thin outcome they desire. And now…well, frankly we’ve hit a bit of a wall. Remember Don Lippencoutt? Of course you do. He was the world’s fastest man in 1912- ran the 100metres in 10. 6 seconds. Now, that really is jolly fast. Fast forward (ho ho) to 1999, and you have the fantastically named Usain Bolt doing the same achievement in 9. 58 seconds. Now honestly, that’s even quicker than I can imagine falling from a plane. But that’s probably as fast as we’re going to get, without super serums and genetic engineering. In 1912, athletes usually also held down a milk round and a job at the gas station; the Titans of the Track in 2012 live in converted volcanoes and sleep upright in MRI scanners. If anyone knocks point 0001 of a second from the current record, they’ll be popping corks.

And that’s for something as easily measured as speed. I mean, how fast can you get from A to B? is really one of the simplest parameters you can hope to establish. But smarter? More intelligent? That’s a whole new card game of contention. There isn’t an intelligence test in the world that enjoys universal recognition as such. That’s partly because any test can be interpreted as an activity in itself; ultimately any test, no matter how good, can be seen as a test to see how well you can perform in a test, rather than having an intrinsic link to another attribute, which we’ll call intelligence. We can’t even establish an effective definition of intelligence, for God’s sakes. It’s like we’re trying to establish an international barometer of how much love there is in the world, or something. And don’t get me started on measuring happiness.

Grade inflation

OK, so maybe people aren’t actually getting smarter (exhibit A: Jedward. Exhibit B: people still buy homoeopathic medicine).

2. Perhaps the teaching has got better?

We’re just BETTER these days.

Ah, now that’s another story entirely. Because I’ve been involved in teaching for nearly ten years- not an enormous amount of time, but long enough to have a squinty-eyed perspective on the ‘improving for twenty years’ GCSE data. Has teaching really gotten better by about 1.5% every year? I know mine has certainly improved, but that’s because I came from a standing start of ‘rubbish’, so anything would be a 100% improvement frankly.

The first year I taught, my kids got a 67% pass rate (A-C) at GCSE. The next year they enjoyed an 87% pass rate. The next year it went down a bit. The next few years, up a bit. I do OK; above national, borough and subject averages, so I’m feeling fine. Why do some years do better than others? To be honest, a lot of it’s to do with the cohort you teach; some year groups have got the academic rigour/ smarts/ familial support dynamic, some have it a bit less. There’s a lot of variation that you don’t have anything like direct control over. I do my best, whoever I get; I teach my heart out, and jump around like Johnny Ball when I need to, and crack the loving whip as much as I have to. My Value Added is just dandy, thanks very much. I don’t say that to self-congartulate. I say it to show that the value of your house can go down as well as up.

Teaching has NOT improved, year in, year out. There is NO evidence to suggest that this has happened nationally. Anyone wants to contest that, I challenge you to show me what teachers do differently now that has significantly improved examination results the way we have seen. Assessment  for learning? Do me a favour. VAK? Personalised learning? Learning to learn? Multiple Intelligences. All of them- ALL of them, fashionable ideologies, quack pseudo-science, or well-meant ideas that never survived in the cold atmosphere of the real classroom. Teachers have never been so hampered by red tape, directives and ‘best practise’, and yet exam results just keep going up and up and up. How?

Is it…Grade Inflation?

The temptation to inflate grades can be expressed in these ways:

‘Pick a qualification…any one.’

1. It’s Darwinian. If one school inflates its grades, then all other schools that don’t would be at a disadvantage, unless they too chose to inflate their grades, like the constantly lengthening neck of the giraffe over the millennia. And once they do it too, the survival advantage is negated, until someone inflates their grades again. Hence inflation. I believe economists have noticed that something similar happens with money…Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if all schools weren’t compared with each other in a Darwinian environment that replicates and combines the brutality of the state of nature with the heartlessness of the Free Market in League Tables, except…oh dear; we do have that. Ah.

2. Exam boards compete for business. They do, they do, they do, and Satan rules the world. OCR, Edexcel, AQA and Al Qaeda, etc all want a slice of your pie. And when profit drives an enterprise, then profit replaces the enterprise itself as the goal of the project. Don’t misunderstand me- I’m not explicitly anti-market- as Milton Friedman roughly said, it’s the best system out of a bad bunch- but as a motivator, it often has imperfect consequences. In the pursuit of market share, competitors will…well, compete. They’ll try to distinguish their product from the competitors. Do you think they have many strategy meetings where anyone suggests that they make next year’s syllabus even harder? ‘Oh boy, even less kids will pass- let’s DO it!’ No. No, they don’t.

Says who? Says Mick Waters, former head of the QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the public body that was (until recently) responsible for maintaining and advising on the National Curriculum. He claimed that England’s exam system was ‘diseased’ and ‘corrupt’. Consider this, taken from the BBC website::

‘In Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching, Mr Waters says that before working for the QCA he thought all the criticism about exams being “dumbed-down” was “unfair”.

“You know, the old argument, more people passed than ever before. Since I’ve been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt,” he says.

This is because exam boards are vying for business in a marketplace, he adds.
He also says he has heard people from exam boards talking to head teachers and trying to sell their qualifications by implying their examinations are easier than those of other boards.’

Head of the QCA. What would HE know, eh?

Grade Inflation

It’s all good, apparently.

Nobody in their proverbial right mind would say that schools should be exempt from some kind of external assessment- they’re not cheap, you know- but what is undeniable is that whenever anything is subject to assessment, it’s human nature to try to look as good as possible. If a school gets an Ofsted, it’ll paint over tthe cartoon phalluses, ‘lose’ a few key players, and get its books ready. When a government wants to be able to crow about the success of a flagship policy, it will do what it can to ensure that key indicators for that policy are looking as sexy and toned as possible. When the Academies were first introduced, we also saw a rise in GCSE-equivalent subjects that frankly, my dear, weren’t worth a damn- or at least not the market value that was being ascribed to them. But results went up, indeed they did.

Add to that the currently irresistible practise of certifying students in ‘life skills’ and other GCSE-equivalents that were (and are) an insult to their more traditional brethren (you know, useless things like English and maths), and finally chuck in drilling for exams that is now an unavoidable part of every child’s school career, and you have an easy explanation for the success rate in exams going up, and up, and up.

Grade inflation

There are still sceptics of course, who usually say these kinds of things:

You’re devaluing the terrific achievements of the kids.

No: I want to celebrate genuine achievement. Do you think they introduced the A* for A levels because the present system was working? Alas, no.

You’re devaluing the terrific improvements made by teachers

Oh God, no, no, no. Teachers are shuffling along, weighed down with lead shackles called (in the manner of a middle-brow satirical cartoon from Punch) ‘new initiatives’ and ‘policy churn’. How teachers teach has remained pretty constant since cavemen first set three part lessons in mammoth whispering. There is no ‘new science’ of teaching. Unfortunately there is a whole racket that has grown up around it, attempting to convince teachers (and their masters) that teaching students is a complex, arcane matter, that can only be achieved with a degree in neuroscience and an understanding of the latest voguish psychological theories about left/ right brain, or learning styles. What, may I say, a load of shit.

People have always complained about dumbing down.

So? It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. That’s like saying, ‘Oh , people have always complained about the weather.’ And yet the Heavens still open. Besides, the grade inflation debate isn’t that old in this country- back about forty years for the lion’s share of it, with its ancestral bones buried back in the start of the twentieth century- and before that, there wasn’t really an education system you could actually point to, so we’re not exactly talking about something older than the Norman Conquest, are we?

I possibly wouldn’t mind so much, but it also has a knock-on effect on the target grades that children are expected to achieve; they also have to acount for the increase of examination ‘success’ and subsequently the targets for children get higher and higher as well. You can laugh. You won’t be laughing when you get a phone call from the school, expressing concern because your little Billy is only getting twenty out of twenty one A*s for his mock GCSEs in year three. Don’t get me started on FFT data. One day I’ll write about it before I blow a gasket.

I hope that this has been in some way helpful to Glenys Stacey. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that grade inflation was behind this meteoric rise in exam success. I’d prefer to call it ‘magic.’

If you have been affected by any of the educational issues raised in this blog, please call the DfE.