Does Lowering the Bar Help?

lowering the bar

As we are in the midst of the Exam Results Season, I was looking at the statistics on the BBC and how we revel in the continuing rise in exam passes.

98.1% of people passed A-Level exams this year.

Although there was a drop from 26.6% down to 26.1% who got three grade A’s, this drop was attributed to the fact that more people took Maths and Science exams than in previous years, which are traditionally more difficult subjects.

The increase in A-Level passes, is the 29th in a row. Which is a phenomenal achievement, one which most businesses would be proud of.

The number of people passing has increased from 68% in 1982, to 98.1% in 2013, which is a 30% point improvement.

At first glance it would seem that schools are getting better at teaching, and pupils are benefiting from this by getting smarter, and achieving higher grades.

But when you dig just a little bit, what you see is a flawed system:

  • Schools training students to pass exams rather than teaching them subjects in depth
  • teachers recommending that pupils take easier subjects in order to get better results so that they can be better guaranteed a place in University;
  • subjects being dumbed down, such as Maths where, no calculus is taught before the age of 16
  • changes to marking, where increase in course work being graded rather than examinations, although I do think this is probably a fairer reflection

But it looks to me like what we are doing is lowering the bar and then teaching people better how to clear it, but does this really help?

Is having more people clear a lower height the best in the long run for the UK?

We can’t blame the schools, this is the system of assessment we have put in place and then challenged them to do better, and like anyone they have played the system in order to show the required results. But is there any real under lying improvement, are kids smarter or are they just better at passing easier exams.

If thats the case then we are just doing them a disservice, we are releasing people into a competitive world without the best tools to serve them.

I see this with my own children, where my son passed his Spanish exam, which had been made easier because he had only been studying it for 2 years, and really finds it difficult to have any kind of conversation in Spanish.

Whereas I myself barely passed my French Exam after 5 years of study, but at the same age could easily converse in French. Yes it was error strewn, but at east I could make myself understood.

I don’t believe that teachers are happy with the outcomes, but they have no choice as they too are graded on these results and are expected to improve the figures year on year.

Ultimately we will arrive at 100% of our students passing exams, we are already at 98.1, and results improve every year, but is this what we want. Is this really our goal?

Personally I would prefer to have smarter students, rather than more qualified.

It looks like Schools are pushing students to easy options in a bid to protect their league table position – a move which is leading to grade inflation and dumbing down.

There is drop in the number of students taking traditional A-level subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, French and German, in favour of subjects such as Media, Business Studies, and Psychology, which are seen as easier options.

I am not suggesting that students are not as smart today as they were in the past, but I do believe the quality of education they are receiving is poorer.

For sure there are many things that I learnt that I have never used in some of those subjects, but I was pushed, and found it difficult, and I think it was that process that helped me, and prepared me for the commercial world.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I am pretty sure 100% of students passing Exams is not it.

We need to have a meritocracy, not promotion of mediocracy, which is what will happen if we continue down this path.

Gordon Tredgold

Leadership Principles