Leader: Why do we steal their starshine?

In our confusion about what we want out of students, we too easily denigrate their genuine accomplishments

August 18, 2011

This summer will be "the most frantic and stressful in living memory" for A-level pupils seeking university places, according to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. It is not clear why Ms Hunt felt the need to contribute to the frenzy the national media always whip up around A-level results day. Each year, their shrieks of "A levels dumbed down" and "it wasn't like this in my day" culminate in wails of "Why can't all these clever pupils get into university?", conveniently glossing over the fact that they have spent the previous 11 months complaining vociferously that too many young people go to university these days.

Poor old Mary Curnock Cook. The chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has done her best to calm things down. She made clear that there is no evidence that the forthcoming rise in tuition fees has increased competition for places. The number of pupils entering clearing will be similar to last year, she said, and they will be scrapping over roughly the same number of places.

Pupils, too, seem calmer than the pundits and have shown little sign of mass panic. Yes, fewer are deferring places - the number taking a gap year is down 17,000 on last year - but that still leaves 30,000 apparently unflustered and undeterred by the prospect of paying up to £9,000 in fees from 2012-13.

For universities, the only question about this incoming cohort is: are they up to it? Is there any substance to reports about falling educational standards?

Certainly more remedial classes are being laid on, and new undergraduates often lack some of the knowledge needed for higher study. But the problem here is not so much that of young people today being thicker than they used to be, or of schools falling short of some long-lost mythical standard. Rather, it is that the system is not joined up and coherent.

A school's aim is not primarily to prepare students for university: that is only one criterion on which it will be judged. The main yardstick is league tables, so it behaves strategically to improve its position. This is not always in its pupils' best interests: it does not enter for A levels those who might not make the grade; it encourages some to take less challenging subjects; and it teaches to the tests on which it will be held to account.

Pupils aiming for university are no lazier or less intelligent than before, but they tend to study only what they must to pass their exams, and some of the rise in A-level success rates is a result of their working the modular curriculum to their advantage.

Teachers argue that they are better prepared than ever and more skilled at teaching the syllabus. They are fed up with the accusations of falling standards. In our cover story on A-level myths, Neil Hopkins, principal of Peter Symonds College in Winchester, sums it up thus: "When Roger Bannister ran the four-minute mile in the 1950s, it was a big achievement. Nowadays it's fairly commonplace, but people don't question whether the mile has become shorter."

Until politicians tackle the education system as a whole instead of breaking it up, like the A-level syllabus itself, into bite-size chunks for different government departments to chew over, summer will remain a time when no matter how successful our young people are, we manage to make them feel like failures.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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