Alan Ryan

August 29, 2003

By 'dumbing up' in education, more people are studying for longer, but the end result is conformity and lack of imagination in the system.

The annual recriminations over A-level standards invite an awkward question: can there be such a thing as "dumbing up" and, if so, have we been doing it? Dumbing down we know about. It is undeniable (even by David Miliband) that some A levels demand less knowledge and fewer skills than they once did. Grammars used for O-level Latin 30 years ago serve for A level today; some of the French texts used for O level 30 years ago would be found very hard-going by A-level students today, and if university mathematicians say that a B today would have got a D 20 years ago, I am inclined to believe them.

But that doesn't dispose of the question. Most of the students who get Bs today would not have been doing A levels at all 20 years ago, so claims about what they would have got if they had done them answer one question while missing a more interesting point. This goes something as follows: if many more students take even pretty undemanding courses at an age when they would otherwise have gone off to work, hasn't the average level of academic attainment by their age group gone up? The very best might well know less about some things than they once would have done, and one kind of intellectual sophistication that we once demanded of a very small number of 18 and 19-year-olds might be less in evidence than it was - but that is perfectly consistent with the average level having risen.

By the same token, the gap between the "ins" and the "outs" might have widened at the same time; if far more students are cajoled, bullied, lured or charmed into going on to A level and higher education, it is not implausible that the academic divide between them and those who stop at 16 will be wider than before. It is even more plausible that the "no-GCSEs at all" cohort will form a sort of educational underclass resistant to everything the Department for Education and Skills can throw at it. But the average level of attainment of the age group may nonetheless be rising; the distribution of achievement may simultaneously be compressing at the top and widening at the bottom.

How, then, might this be a case of "dumbing up"? It is very noticeable that in the welter of recriminations over absolute standards, the two most passionate claims made by those who resist the idea that an A in French in 2003 isn't the animal it once was, are that teachers do a wonderful job and that students work very hard. This isn't a refutation of the claim, of course: it may well be true.

There is a third thing that people say less often, and generally sotto voce. And this third thing is the explanation of the way in which universities also have been dumbing up - in conjunction, no doubt, with the fact that we are wonderful teachers and our students work very hard when they are not clubbing or stacking shelves in Tesco. It is that examinations have become utterly predictable; students are told in great detail exactly what is required of them; teachers in school and lecturers in universities teach exactly to the syllabus; examination papers are set so as to produce no surprises; a student with a reasonable memory of what they have been taught and some grasp of the subject ought to be able to get a lowish 2.1 or a B at A level without much difficulty.

The whole impact of the Quality Assurance Agency has been to achieve this sort of "dumbing up". And it is not a wholly bad thing - we don't want arbitrary and unpredictable examinations, haphazard teaching, and unthought-out syllabuses. But it comes at a price, and the price includes the fact that conformity is over-rewarded and imagination under-rewarded.

As usual, the American present is our future. Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust keep arguing for the introduction of the American scholastic aptitude tests to discover the handful of diamonds in the rough that the A level misses.

Whatever the merits of that argument, it overlooks the extent to which we have already copied the American secondary system. Undemanding textbook-based syllabuses, with lots of coursework and an ethos of giving the instructor the prescribed answer, have become the order of the day. The system rewards meticulous teaching to the test and the hard work of virtuous students who bend themselves to the same task. Given that the US has most of the world's best universities - as well as many dreadful ones - the effects of this sort of secondary education are not disastrous; but it is much less fun than a more adventurous system might be.

Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

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