Some grades were decided on a “purely statistical basis”. Up to that point, I and others had no idea this was happening. In particular, the observation that: “At A-level, the key decisions are the fixing of the borderlines between grades B and C, C and D, and E and O, the level at which an O-level equivalent is given. The other grades and then fixed statistically, the aim being to produce the following percentages in each grade given a large and ‘normal’ entry in the particular subject: A, 10 percent; B, 15 percent; C, 10 percent; D, 15 percent; E, 20 percent ‘Allowed’ ordinary level, 20 percent; ‘fail’, 10 percent’”
In effect, this meant that 30% were set up to fail at A-level from the outset. Also, that only 35% were going to get above grade C, the level needed for university entry in most cases. My further investigation at the time revealed that the grade C band was less than 5% wide in many cases, meaning that a few small errors on a paper could easily plunge a good candidate from grade B to D and well out of university contention. This had happened to me five years earlier when it had all turned on what I did on one afternoon.
A lucky escape.
In the summer of 1972 ,I rolled up at school to get my results knowing that I had probably missed out because of one exam mess-up. Throughout school I had been accelerated through O-levels and A-levels a year early. I did this whilst working part-time; a fact that the school duly failed to spot when making considerable demands of me. I was only seventeen and had a good offer from a Medical School that is now in a Russell Group University. But I specifically had to get a grade B in Physics to gain entry. I sat my first A-Level exam earlier that year in Physics when I was still sixteen and basically I messed it up. Without knowing at the time, the events that fateful exam afternoon had triggered a major change in my life and I had a lucky escape from a medical career that I was not suited to. A few percent lost on the paper and I had escaped.
The revelations in The Observer five years later emphasised how close I might have come and that was the genuine shock. I surged ahead with my academic career in Microbiology and Biochemistry sustained by a genuine interest and curiosity about how nature worked. When obtaining my results, I received no career advice of any kind despite being channelled to Medicine as a career up to that point. Suddenly I felt that I had been discarded. Through my own efforts the following year, I was given unconditional offers and further offers through clearing based upon my results already in the bag. The use of the word ‘clearing’ in this context seemed to describe a removal of a blockage or clearing out of something to be discarded or tidied away. In 1977, it came to mean coming out from under the dark forest canopy into a ‘clearing’ to see the sunlight above.
A question of standards and fairness.
Students learn quickly at university that some questions remain the same, but that the answers change over time. I learned this simple fact at an early stage.
By the time I graduated in 1977, I had read Alvin Toffler's 1970 book ‘Future Shock’  that predicted: “To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots - religion, nation, community, family, or profession - are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources.”
I was indeed stuck in the middle of major changes in technology and had a rapid rise in information to contend with. But I was excited and prepared for the challenge. Today’s students have even more of an overload of information to contend with. They have increasingly huge volumes to filter out to find what they want to discover. They also have some astounding tools at their disposal to achieve this. This will change even further in their time and it is certain that they will rise to the challenge in the same way as those before them.
We are all a captive to the times that we live in. It is futile to carp on about so called ‘falling standards’. The students have to adjust to the times in which they live and can only deal with what they are faced with. The students don’t change, only the situation that they are put into changes. The world is moving forward fast and they will move with it. But we must always remember that statistics do not define an individual. Remember the student heading home with one grade below the offer required. Some may have no home or family. Some may not have family support or approval. He or she will be hunting down a place in clearing as this is posted. They are in a race and will need advice and assistance. Reports that middle class students are at an advantage and ‘play the system’  in this race are unhelpful. They are all individuals unsure of their future whatever their background. The system may be flawed but it is not caused by any student trying to get along. Others will be taking up unconditional offers and some will be ditching them if they got higher grades than they anticipated. This is surely expected.
The times ahead.
Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.
 Edexcel grade boundaries leaked ahead of A-level results day. Schools Week Wed 15th Aug 2018,
 GCE – Sitting in with the markers. The Observer 10 July 1977
 GCE – Pass or fail – How the examiners decide. The Observer 17 July 1977
 How GCSE and CSE became big business. The Observer 8 February 1978: The myths about exam standards. The Observer 9 February 1978: and A new look for education’s ability meters’ The Observer 10 February 1978
 The Waddell Report (1978) School Examinations. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1978. See: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/waddell/waddell1978.html
 Standards at GCE A-level: 1963 and 1973: a pilot investigation of examination standards in three subjects. T Christie, GM Forrest - 1980 - Macmillan Education
 Future Shock By Alvin Toffler, New York: Random House, 1970.
Future Shock is "too much change in too short a period of time".
 Middle-class teenagers 'play the system to get into top universities' The Guardian 12 August 2018.
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