Sunday, 1 February 2009

Qualification Inflation: Can we do better?

Ofqual, the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator, have concluded that A-levels "should be toughened up". Clearly the statistics speak for themselves. With a National pass rate of 97% and more than a quarter of A-level papers passed at A grade it is no surprise that universities are reported to be finding it difficult "to identify the most promising students".

However, there are three aspects of this debate which are regularly overlooked.

First, "A-level Grade Inflation" has been a key driver towards the Government's target of 50 per cent of young adults going on to higher education. A pass rate of 97% enables more young people to achieve the threshold grades to go on to university. One consequence of this, marching in step with "A-level Grade Inflation", is its twin, "University Offer Inflation". We are all familiar with the impact that this has had at the prestige end of the academic spectrum as it has become a hardy perennial of the broadsheets: Russell Group university departments swamped with applicants with top grades and no time, energy or inclination to differentiate between them. However, "University Offer Inflation" has had a great impact at every level. Grade inflation may have made it easier to go to university, but it is as hard as it ever was for young people to gain places on a good course at a top institution. Furthermore, I am concerned that all that has happened is that employers have been forced to adjust their entry qualifications to allow for "Qualification Inflation".

Secondly, there are dozens of good Independent Schools sending out young people with top A-level grades, who go on to top universities and gain 2:1 and First Class degrees. How are employers to distinguish between the plethora of straight A at A-level, 2:1 graduates?

Independent Schools are approaching this problem in two ways. Some schools are exploring alternative qualifications: the International Baccalaureate, the Pre-U and so on. This has complicated the system still further, as it is difficult to compare the different systems and the arguments about their respective tariffs are set to continue for years. Other schools remain committed to ever higher academic standards within the A-level structure. Either way, I believe that it is important that schools explore a broader view of education that places a greater emphasis on a breadth of education, fostering interests for life and developing skills for the workplace. Ultimately, academic qualifications get interviews, but that personal qualities get the job. Schools abandon these broader educational ideals at their peril.

I welcome Ofqual's willingness to consider "recalibrating" A-level grading and hope that we can return to a genuine gold standard of A-level. There are real advantages in having a uniform National education qualification. A-level, for all its flaws, is widely understood by universities and employers. There is a danger in the quest for alternative routes that no one, outside the secondary education system, will understand what a particular qualification means.

Thirdly, Summer 2010 sees the introduction of the A* at A-level, so the present Lower Sixth [Year 12] will be the first to be awarded this grade. What has disappointed me about its introduction is that initial indications are that universities will not use the A* in their offers. For example, the Oxford and Cambridge websites both indicate that standard conditional offers "are likely to be AAA"; and, despite the introduction of the A*, Imperial College, and Oxford have decided to introduce their own entrance tests instead [See TimesOnline].

One might think that top universities would welcome the A* at A-level as a way of differentiating between applicants on the basis of academic merit - after all they have been complaining that the current grade A is not fit for this very purpose. As the Principal of an Independent School with a strong academic record, I welcome the introduction of the A* as an opportunity for my most able students to stand out from the crowd. However, I suspect that the Government will not share my enthusiasm. The introduction of the A* is likely to demonstrate that Independent Schools are producing a disproportionate number of the top candidates - which is certainly not 'on message' with their wider social engineering agenda. I wonder if this is what is really behind the decision of top universities to ignore the A*?

AFTER NOTE [14/02/09]
It is interesting that, in his attack on Labour schools' policy, Professor Adrian Smith, one of the Government's top education officials, argued that
Universities "won't touch" a new elite A* grade at A-level for fear of recruiting too many sixth-formers from independent schools.
The thrust of his argument was to suggest that Labour's educational reforms had focused on "the masses" at the expense of bright students.


  1. It strikes me that the other side to this argument is also one that merits review; namely, to what degree is society willing to allow its young to fail?

    One side-effect of inflationary exam results (and a 97% pass rate) is that students must find it hard to decide what is best for them and in which areas they genuinely possess talent. For example, my O level results made it pretty clear I was going to be literature/languages student, rather than a scientist; however much I would have liked to have taken Biology to A level.

    I heard the psychologist Oliver James talking on TV this morning about what he terms the 'failure of selfish capitalism to create social cohesion in British society.'

    Do you think that is perhaps a bigger problem for any government to confront - the reality that we're not all going to be a David Beckham or Rebecca Adlington, Carol Vorderman or Prof Stephen Hawking?

    If we cast our minds back to our own childhoods I'm certain we'll recall discovering that while we might have been better at certain tasks, our peers would have excelled equally in other areas. Thus, a culture of learning one's strengths and areas for improvement was developed.

    We seem to be living in an age where those who are bad at something (think John Sergeant on skates) are fĂȘted as heroes. So, our value system is topsy turvy, which makes anyone attempting to cultivate a more traditional approach to societal values, which I think is at the core of many independent schools, seem out of kilter with the wider world.

    Taken from that viewpoint, is it any wonder that exam inflation is both a curse and a social stigma for students who do well, while hinting also at a broader social malaise?

  2. A very interesting angle on examination inflation - it does take longer for able students to find their true strengths. Furthermore, the concept of "satisfactory" progress or attainment have been devalued.

  3. Back to Ofqual...the problem is made more complicated by the 2013 review that, if the rumours are still to be believed, is quite likely to recommend the abolition of A Levels in favour of the ultimate social engineering, the Diplomas: social engineering because few schools on their own can meaningfully offer them and the impact will be the mass shipment of students from FE college to collaborative 6th form and back whilst modules, units and bites are studied for anything up to four years, with no-one quite clear where accountability or responsibility lie in the end. Their thinking is big city urban yoof, which is a desperately important issue in fact, but they have not grasped that there are many others in all forms of educational institution who are actually quite bright and need the benefits of rigour and academic discipline to be recognised on a scale which makes sense. We fall behind internationally because we have sacrificed enabling the top end to achieve for encouraging the other levels to achieve also at the same examinations rather than appropriate ones. It is the downvaluing of 'vocational' routes which underlies muchh of this problem. Oh, and why does no-one point out university degree level inflation? Statistics show a remarkable increase in firsts and 2:1s in the decade 1995 - 2005, quite disproportionate to the student numbers!

  4. I would argue that, while results (A*-B) have been easier and easier to attain over the years and grades should be adjusted in some way, adding another measure at the top may be overvaluing academic results. Instead, how about making more marks available so as to increase the scope for distinguishing students? It makes sense for the B and C ranges to be much wider(I'm not aware of the trends here) because, as discussed, most people are 'average' and if a student gets four A*s then one is left to wonder how exactly they achieved this, and how relevant this is.

    What actually distinguishes an A student from an A* student may be a question of revision and exam technique, which aren't always a significant part of the skillsets required in the workplace.
    How relevant is the performance in an exam in a given subject? How important is it, in practice, to be able to perform alone under pressure? Coursework(in some cases as part of a group)exists to balance this, but I certainly felt a degree of pressure doing mine, and knowing that I had to work alone. In the workplace, almost all work is teamwork and the pressure is lifted from the individual somewhat.

    I may be straying off-topic, but what value is given to innovation? To achieve a high grade, one is to an extent 'parroting' information and new ideas seem undervalued in contrast. I personally regard this as very rare, and innovative, imaginative students should be recognised.

    A good question would be: How can we measure innovation as a factor in the grading system?

  5. The issue of the recalibration of A-level is an interesting one. I believe that, until recently, the Scottish system worked on a fixed proportion [10%?] of those taking the exams getting an A-grade and so on. This had the advantage of combating grade inflation, but did not recognise that standards might be rising.

    On the subject of parroting of information, a friend who is an A-level chief examiner commented that the A* is likely to go to the most careful candidate, rather than the one with the most flair - very C21 I thought.

  6. Most careful because follows the rubric most closely - that is the one and only rule of exam marking: did they answer the question according to the mark scheme - 'flair' is unquantifiable! Sad but true...

  7. Flair may be hard to quantify, but I think it is possible to recognise it. When I assess films or websites that students have produced in groups for A level Media Studies, I have a mark scheme, but that alone won't suffice. There is an element of human judgement, that's based on comparing what's come before, what's been seen online and elsewhere, changing trends in aesthetics and design, plus numerous other factors, such as the use and development of technology. All of that then has to be placed in a social context - has student A appeared to have been more organised than student B in her group? Has student M been observed to be more creative, collaborative, or hands-on than student N.

    Making such observations carries an inherent risk of subjective marking, but that's why there's a process of internal and external moderation.

    So, to answer in part Saul's question, innovation and team working skills can be accommodated and promoted within the curriculum, but, as Richard has noted, there are larger forces at play that can determine what letter appears on a student's exam result sheet come August.

  8. I somewhat agree with the above comments.

  9. In A2 economics, flair is identifiable and rewarded; the problem is that flair without proper attention to exam technique will probably not get the A* grade. And so the independent schools may win out in the end, as long as the students with real flair attend independent schools. But don't you think the universities are just taking a cautionary approach and in time the A* will be treated in the same way as the 'A' was many years ago?

    However, the recession will probably sort all this out - students of all abilities know they are going to find it tough out there; they are realising that paper qualifications will not be enough. Universities and employers will have a whole host of other work and life experiences to help them make their decisions - innovation and teamworking will probably make their mark through the back door!