18 August 2022

A Levels results day is never ‘pain-free’ – that’s the whole point of exams


If you spend any time looking at the mainstream media today you might be forgiven for thinking that A Levels are little more than a nasty obstacle to young people getting a well-deserved place at university. The Times’ front page headline (‘Generation Covid faces university rejection’) is typical in catastrophising the reality that for any selective system to work there must be, well, selection.

The tone is of panic, a generational FOMO, of places being ‘scrambled’ for, of record falls in top grades; even the Head of Ucas has warned that today will not be ‘pain-free’. But nor should it be, because for grades to mean anything at all there must be a range: an A* is devalued if nobody is getting below a C. For there to be success, there must be failure. But reading some of the coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking assessment was nothing more than way for beneficiaries of the system to stop those locked out of it from progressing. 

Back in the real world, today’s results will hopefully presage a welcome acceptance that the fairest way of assessing pupils’ knowledge and understanding is, in fact, through examinations.

First, a quick re-cap: this is the first time since 2019 that we have had public examinations. During the ‘Covid years’ schools were given a pretty free hand to decide on the grades they wanted to give their students. The former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, absolved himself and the Government of any responsibility (or control) by overnight turning schools and teachers into awarding bodies and examiners. The result? Rampant grade inflation: the percentage of A* or As went from 25.2% in 2019 to 44.3% in 2021. You might think that even the most innumerate of commentators could see that this was unsustainable. You’d be wrong.

For the cloud of parasitical consultants and self-appointed ‘experts’ who swarm around schools, buzzing advice daily, this massive expansion of top grades only proved that examinations could be abandoned altogether. Tony Blair’s former adviser Peter Hyman is typical of those who live in a sort of educational Upside Down dystopia. He has argued that teacher assessment ‘actually reflect grade reality – the reality of what a child has learned in that subject over time, rather than merely what they can recall in that highly pressured moment in an exam hall’.

His use of ‘merely’ is telling: for those who hate examinations, learning stuff, and recalling it under pressure, is akin to exhibitionism, it is parading ‘surface knowledge’ and is simply a sign that inculcated ‘exam technique’ is functioning well. Such a view is, of course, astonishingly insulting to all those students who do well in exams because they are bright. 

This distaste for selection, of intellectual and academic elitism, of rewarding ability and hard work, has been evident in many areas of public life for some time now. For those on the left, selection smacks of unfairness and privilege; better for all to have prizes than for some to miss out.

As for the catastrophising in some sections of the media, a little perspective would be useful. Yes, the top grades for A levels has fallen, but 36.4% of all grades were still marked A* or A, still higher than 2019 by some way. And more than 425,000 students have got a place at university or college, which is the second highest number on record, with 19% more students being accepted into their first or insurance choice than in 2019. The return to normal will take time, but the alternative is to be stuck with an assessment system that has little differentiation and makes sense to nobody.

So, ignore the headlines, and look at some stories that are, possibly, of greater interest in these results. The ongoing success of girls is one such story: it is the first year that girls were awarded more A*s than boys (14.7% compared to 14.3%), and even with a decrease of 4.5% in A grades they still did better than boys.

Some subjects are in trouble too, including modern languages (German and French had under 2,500 entries each this year), and English Literature (down to just under 9,000 entries); look a little closer and you’ll see that in 2021 only 23% of those taking the subject were male. The future for these courses at university looks fragile, to say the least.

Such trends can change, but they take time, and cannot necessarily be left to the invisible hand of the market to shape outcomes. If we want fewer top grades we have to have the nerve to decide on acceptable distributions; and if we want subjects to survive we have to design curricula that make them interesting, and not subsets of other politicised forms of activism

But perhaps the most interesting story, hidden in the noise of A level results, is that today saw the first cohort of T-level students getting their results today. These vocational qualifications are in their infancy, but in a country that has traditionally been so poor at investing in credible alternatives to A levels, they could offer an attractive alternative to students who know the industry they want to work in. Early signs are that they are a success, with 71% of T-level applicants being accepted by a college or university.

Another welcome development is the papers seemingly abandoning the cliched image of successful A level students jumping in the air, their certificates of achievement held high, their places confirmed, their futures secured.  After the last two years, the celebrations are understandably more muted, but we should acknowledge that our 18-year olds have achieved a lot, and in very difficult circumstances.  They deserve our congratulations: they are, after all, this country’s future, and we need our bright and best to stay here to study, to excel, to gain the qualifications we need. So, three cheers for them.

And two cheers for examinations. Nobody likes taking them, but they remain the best – and fairest – way of recognising, and rewarding, achievement.     

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Dr David James is Deputy Head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.