The headline in today’s Times

Posted: 17th August 2018

The headline in today’s Times highlights only too well some issues that remain within our examination system.

Michael Gove pushed through a return to linear A level examinations, with the intention that we would see an end to grade inflation and the perceived decline in standards. The removal of the modular examinations was seen as the dawn of ‘harder’ A levels. So why have the percentages of A* and A grades continued to rise this year? The Times gives us the answer; grade boundaries have fallen.

So why bring in a more difficult examination regime, only to reduce the pass marks so the grades remain the same?

The answer lies in the relationship between the standards regulator, the examinations boards and the UK universities. Examination boards have been inundated with requests for remarks over the last few years. If the harder examinations had seen grades tumble, then it is almost certain that the volume of remark requests would have expanded, perhaps to unmanageable levels.

For the regulator, the problem was even greater. Whilst the quantity of remark requests would have been irritating, perhaps even embarrassing, the likelihood of students failing to get their university places was a much bigger potential headache. Potentially, thousands of students might have dropped at least one grade, missed out on places and had to go through the UCAS clearing system. The regulator ducked the issue, and grade boundaries fell, to ensure that students gained the grades that they were expecting.

But what is wrong with all the students going into a ‘clearing’ process? Universities in the UK should do what almost every other university worldwide does and award places after the examination results, instead of doing so on the basis of some fairly spurious predicted grades six months earlier. The UK universities are the ones perpetuating grade inflation; they set the benchmark for success and, in doing so in advance of the examinations, ensure that grade inflation continues.

It is more than time for the system to change!