Joined: Nov 1605Occupation: studying incendiarism in WestminsterJonathan's Full Profile
A deranged right-wing conspiracy theory becomes a devastating right-wing conspiracy; then it crushes the dreams of thousands.
Today, it all exploded. After the endless decries, the hyperbole and demagoguery of the tabloids, the stern frowning of old masters and the patronising ‘celebration’ photographs of fruity girls, victory was granted to the sneering, snarling bullies of the Dailies and the O-Level nostalgics. For the first time in 20 years, the number of ‘A’ and ‘A*’ grades awarded at A-Level declined by 0.4% . But lesser-known than this much-discussed statistic is the general downturn in grade marks. This is reflected by a more shocking statistic – the number of students accepted onto courses upon receiving results is down by 7% , prompting a vast increase in the number of students put through the Clearing process. But beyond the main figures there is a darker, more sinister dimension to the systematic reduction in performance in this year’s A-Level results.
A-Levels consist of modular marks, not a single-mark grade from one exam. Multiple exams are taken throughout the two-year courses. Coursework also forms a major part of many qualifications. The final grade is comprised of a combination of modular exam marks and coursework. A ‘B’ grade could be the product of two ‘Cs’ in the first year (A.S.) and two ‘As’ in the second year (A2). The marking scheme and structure is different for every subject and individual qualification. Divergences and inconsistencies are to be expected. But what took place in this year’s production and distribution of results carries the markings of deliberate, calculated interference and reduction of grades across the board. These indications are obscured behind the most discussed figures – the final grades of students. Reported far less is the performance of students in individual modules. Of course, doing this would make for a tsunami of paperwork. But the devil is in the detail. Inside the 2012 A-Level grades, there lurk suggestions of manipulation, distortion and abuse of exam-marking procedures – if there is any ‘scandal’ over grades, it should not be their apparent ‘inflation’ but a far more malevolent, destructive policy: Grade Deflation.
For much of the twenty-year period from 1991 onwards, in which A-Level results rose year on year in the number of high grades awarded and overall passes secured, the devotees of capped distribution of top grades and good university places bemoaned the ‘dumbing down’ of exams. It became a national pastime to snort at the success of the young – as much a Results Day cliché as the pictures of embracing gaggles of female students. However, this amusing feature of education politics has grown more hostile and aggressive; Michael Gove has repeatedly condemned the ‘dumbing down’ of A-Levels as if it were a major threat to education, despite being largely a fantasy of the easily-frightened on the Right. The response to this imaginary threat has been one of extreme authoritarian backwardness; the exam boards appear to have been politically intimidated and instructed to reduce the awarding of As and A*s. The accusation against the government? Grade Deflation with Intent.
What evidence supports this accusation? There is the allegation made by education officer Ian Toone of Voice, the normally moderate and well-behaved teachers’ union not known for strikes or militancy. He openly accused the results of being “manipulated to suit the Government’s agenda rather than the interests of students.” He went on to say:
“There is a risk that such interference by Government may cause people to lose confidence in the qualifications system as well as thwarting the life chances of many students who have worked hard in their attempts to achieve success.”
If Toone can present a witness statement, the hard evidence will come from the facts and figures of results. As stated before, the reporting of modular results is thin on the ground, but one example demonstrates the scale of inconsistently punitive marking for the June 2012 exams. The ‘English Language B’ course provided by the exam board AQA is taken in many schools and colleges in England and Wales. One disturbing pattern has emerged from results in this particular qualification. Large numbers of students targeted at ‘A’ and ‘A*’ have received varied results overall, but specifically ‘D’ in the June 2012 exam for module ‘ENGB3’. This is a recurring fact nationwide; from Northumberland to Staffordshire to Essex and the West Midlands, students are reporting a ‘D’ result for the summer exam, regardless of predicted grades or past performance. The data for this situation is sketchy; it is drawn largely from witness testimonies and claims made by students on The Student Room website. But it provides a small insight into the new wave of tougher results. Many high-performing students have dropped from high ‘A’s to D suddenly and without precedent. Conversely, the ‘A’ grades actually awarded are done so with arbitrary caprice – distinguishing so sharply between the quality of work between the ‘D’ students and their ‘A’ counterparts before the exams would have been a difficult task. It is as if examiners were specifically instructed to give out ‘D’ grades and lower, regardless of whom to – a quota system for ensuring a certain number of students drop below a certain standard, even if they do not deserve to. The short-falling of the high-predicted is a strong example of possible orders to ‘downmark’.
It is all letters and numbers. But university places and career prospects hang on grade outcomes – one rotten module can scupper an applicant’s plans. The decision to expand the number of ‘AAB’ students ‘recruited’ to top universities has been criticised for limiting the number of places available to existing applicants who fall short of attaining their target grades. And decline in top grades affects state schools the worst – Eton and Harrow will not be having trouble with limitations on As and A*s awarded to students. With a combination of the new AAB recruitment rule and diminished results across the board, more top places will be effectively reserved for the privately educated, while bright state school and college students have their predicted places snatched away by arbitrary marking practices. Is this a deliberate attempt to exclude poorer students from top universities? There is no discernible evidence for this; whatever the motivation, however, greater social segregation is the result.
The Government and the exam boards have crippled the ambitions of thousands of students in order to satisfy a political agenda motivated by the fanatical right-wing delusion of ‘prizes for all’. ‘Grade Inflation’ is a myth; a right-wing conspiracy theory. But ‘Grade Deflation’ is now demonstrably true. Political interference and intimidation has branded the hard-working and intelligent with the mark of failure and robbed them of the futures they deserve. If the strategy for pushing grade performance down must be given a name or a codename, it should be ‘Hammerdown’. There has been a conscious, concerted attempt to hammer down results through ridiculous mismarking of modules, concealed behind the reported final grades.
Whenever we are told about the mythical ‘dumbing down’ of exams, we must retort with firmness and certainty: There is no dumbing down. But there is Hammerdown. That is the strategy of exam boards from now onwards. Keep grades as low as possible and by any means necessary. Even if it ruins and devastates the lives of students and marks the education system with cancerous corruption.
In the declaration of interests: Jonathan X has secured his Firm choice university at a Russell Group institution, meeting the required grades.Tweet