A level row: fight for equality in education

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2005 - 11:46

As predicted well in advance, A-level pass rates rose this year, continuing the trend of the last 23 years. To read some of the right-wing newspaper coverage, you'd be forgiven for thinking everyone had passed with four A grades; in fact, the proportion of entries resulting in a pass grade (A-E) rose just 0.2% from 96%, with only 2% of pupils gaining 3 or more A grades.

The focus of the media was of course on how “easy” exams are, with the usual aim of defending a more restrictive and elitist system of entry to higher education; bourgeois critiques of the current system are not motivated by a desire to raise standards but to prevent access to the top jobs, as evidenced by calls for a return to a system where a set percentage of entrants gain each grade. Abolished by the Thatcher government, and replaced by today’s criteria-based marking, this “gold standard” meant 30% of candidates failed, regardless of the level of achievement actually attained.

University education is also still elitist, with 46% of places going to private school pupils, and Britain overall has a poor standard of basic skills, with at least 7 million adults estimated by the UN to be functionally illiterate. The entire media furore over A-level passes serves as a smoke screen for the fact education is not getting qualitatively better; instead, those who drop out before GCSE or A-level exams are ignored, and the real class divide behind university admissions is obscured by the myth that everyone is achieving the “gold standard”, however devalued that may have become.

As seen in previous years, the idea of “soft” subjects was widely touted, with Media Studies, Film, Psychology and Sociology taking flak for being easier than the sciences and Maths. It is interesting to note how these, possibly the most politicised of A-level subjects, are the most widely derided; science subjects may be considered harder academically, but they almost certainly do not produce students with the ability to think critically the way Sociology, for example, does. As an A-level student who came to socialism through Sociology and Film, I think it is certainly worth considering the way that less critical subjects are more valued by the ruling class; young people being increasingly alienated from political thought anyway, discouraging social sciences through this two-tier idea of the worth of A-levels serves to reinforce the passivity of today’s students.

It is difficult to build a critique of post-16 examinations without aligning oneself with the most right-wing commentators; there is little doubt the rising pass rate is a reflection of the system of re-sits, exam-focused courses and modular exams. Pupils starting AS courses in September will be expected to take their first exams in January, leaving little time for in-depth analysis of subjects, with teachers instead focusing on exam technique. A-levels are more about jumping through the requisite hoops with crammed knowledge than real education and exploration of subjects.

It is the motivation behind this critique, however, which separates socialists from the right. Although exams are demonstrably getting “easier”, at least for those who learn to conform to the system of cramming, calling for reform of post-16 education does not necessarily mean making it harder for working class children to get to university, as the right would have it.

Instead, a truly socialist education would encompass the ideas that the potential of each and every student should be realised, rather than simply rewarding those who respond best to the rigid structure of revision and exams. New Labour’s stated aim of 50% of school leavers entering higher education is a fantasy while children from middle-class backgrounds are three times as likely to gain the required grades to gain a place at university, and while top-up fees discourage applications on the basis of income rather than academic ability.

By Sofie Buckland, York. (Sofie has just finished her A-Levels at a sixth form college and is going to university in the autumn.)

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