Media merry-go-round

Ever since the dawn of time, busybodies, armchair (or perhaps “rockchair”) critics and miserable old duffers have complained that the youth of today are whippersnappish upstarts who know too much, where “know too much” is defined as knowing more than them. It is an eternal process – each generation is smarter than the one that went before it. Not necessarily smart in terms of wisdom, streetwise common sense, but smart in terms of the ability to absorb ever increasing amounts of information. This is the so-called information age, after all.

So every year, twice a year, during the media silly season, we put up with stories about how A-Levels and GCSEs are getting easier and easier. Crazy stories are let loose about how it requires only writing your name on the top of the exam paper to score a pass. Then nothing changes.

It happened again this morning, and will happen again next Thursday. I’m sure we’re actually reading the same story every year but with a new date on it. The English-biased media of course conveniently ignore the fact that results in Scotland actually got worse this year, but that doesn’t stop a good old fashioned rant. If results go up, the exams must have got easier. Heaven forbid we would ever credit the youth of today with being pretty smart.

How have they achieved this smartness? Well, first of all, they have been working their arses off for two years, either at GCSE or at A-Level, to get the results they did. Sure there’s time to binge drink, but that makes the achievement even more remarkable. Spend the weekend pissed, spend the week immersed in textbooks, coursework and homework. Top banana. Perhaps the actual cause of binge drinking is that kids don’t have enough to do…

Secondly, they are being taught by teachers who are equally smart, if not more. They see the syllabus, and they see the exam papers, and they get the hints from the examiners meetings, and they are able to make good predictions as to what is going to come up on the exam. In other words, they teach to the test. They are not allowed to care about teaching for the sheer joy of it, or for the love of the subject, since this quickly leads to teaching things which are not “relevant” (by the judgement of the exam boards) and so would result in poor grades. Poor grades equals poor league tables. Poor league tables equals shrinking schools. Shrinking schools equals… you get the picture.

Thirdly, they have been gifted with a system that lends itself to be worked, and worked hard. It is possible to take 12 exams in the first year for 4 AS levels, then take them all again at the end of second year, minus the subject you did worst in. In fact, a lot of students do this because it’s obvious that at the end of the second year you’re more likely to have a good grasp of the material that you did right back at the beginning of the course. This allows grades to rise further, and why not? Everyone deserves a second chance, particularly with the lottery of exams when you could be feeling under-the-weather, or have just had bad luck with the selection of questions that the examiners produced.

Fourthly, there is the obvious point of the specialism of reducing to four subjects, where nothing is compulsory, and everything is picked because of the fact that you’re a) already good at it, and b) already self-motivated enough to want to study it of your own accord. This works an absolute treat.

These all combine to produce ever improving results. Smart kids, taught by smart teachers, in a slightly flimsy system. Maybe exams have got easier, but if they did, it happened a long time ago, way before the media circus on this story began. I did my A-Levels in 2003, and I look at the papers that have happened since then, and there is no doubt in my mind that the difficulty is comparable. In certain subjects, particularly subjective ones like English, Media Studies, Politics, Business Studies, etc. the questions are very similar year in, year out – there’s only so much they can ask on topics when the study of them is very specialised. Then in subjects like Maths, the questions are broadly similar, with just a rejigging of the numbers. In my experience, it happens at degree level as well.

Standards are holding, but they are being seen through too easily. The work levels are higher than ever, particularly since Curriculum 2000. But the system is not evolving to keep up to pace with the clever bastards that the schools are churning out now.

Therein lies the problem. Politicians are obsessed with the so-called “gold standard” of A-Level. Yet there is no good reason why apart from the fact that they don’t want to look like they’re heading for an embarrassing U-turn if they were to scrap the system and start again. But that gold standard has been stagnant for decades.

It is time for it to change. It is terrible for the youth of today, year in, year out, having their hard work rubbished by the media. They deserve better.

Of course, the answer was presented in October 2004 when Mike Tomlinson proposed the replacement of GCSEs and A-Levels with a new qualification which would address all the concerns, restoring confidence in the system, once more allowing for a better discrimination between students, while restoring some elements of basic skills into the system, which have definitely been left behind by the relentless teaching to the exam, narrow syllabuses and the detrimental effect of league tables.

But Tomlinson was ignored, because there was an election on the way, and it would have been humiliating for the government to admit that policy was failing when the public were about to deliver their verdict. Well, some of the public, anyway. Instead, they vowed to go on pretending that all was well when it so blatantly isn’t.

It’s not the kids fault – they can only work with what they’re given, and all the evidence is that they are. They are smarter than they used to be, yet at the same time they are not getting the education they deserve or need to cope in this world in some of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, so we need to raise the bar. The adults are to blame for not being able to think outside the box, to react to the rapidly changing world around us. They owe it to the youth to design a better system that gives them a much fairer and well respected award for all the hard work they’ve put in. Even better, they don’t need to design a system because one has already been designed for them.

They just need to grow a spine instead.

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