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A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?

We need to be sure that no one is  disadvantaged because of their circumstances through arbitrary decisions on  setting grades. We live in an information driven world that is revealing a tarnished history in fairness and opportunity in this respect. It engenders a level of cynicism and mistrust that has to be countered by example at every turn. Time will tell if the A-levels have indeed become fairer or that the old biases remain

Yesterday saw the release of the A-Level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many thousands of young adults had prepared themselves for an event that is most likely to change their lives. 

The day before saw the release of the BTEC results that will also shape the lives and careers of a generation. Last week the Scottish Highers emerged with the same effect. The usual media coverage accompanied the events; often celebratory but sometimes laced with somewhat vindictive questioning about slipping standards. There seems little point in reviewing those points here. There is little new to say and the negative reporting seems to blur the process every year as another cohort of young people set off into a future that they must make for themselves. This year, the basis for determining the grade boundaries was to be withheld until the day of the results. It seems that there were worries about stressing out students who might try to predict their grades just before they get the actual results. As sure as the sun rises, the grade boundaries were leaked the day before causing some students to become even more anxious before their results [1]. However, many more would have simply shrugged it off and accepted the inevitable as I did 46 years ago when I had little idea what was happening.

The passage of time.

This time every year causes deep memories to surface about my A-Level results day. In particular, I remember a coming to a sharp realisation that fate had intervened in a way not visible to me at the time. Whilst about to embark upon my PhD in 1977, I happened upon an article in the Observer [2]. It fundamentally changed my perception of why I was where I was. Journalist Ian Mather had been allowed unprecedented access to the workings of the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB) and had reported upon what he saw. The JMB was then the largest General Certificate of Education (GCE) O- and A-level board in the UK and the very one that had tested me five years earlier. The article was a revelation in itself since until then it was a mystery to me. But there was a bigger shock to come the following week in his second part of the investigation. He described for the first time in public how it all worked in: ‘Pass or fail – How the examiners decide’ [3]. This was a moment of revelation.

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. 

Despite recent changes to the A-levels in England and Wales (Northern Ireland did not change) to an exam based assessment with no input from earlier AS-levels, the proportion getting A and A* grades has largely held up. Also, the proportion gaining ‘fail’ grades has fallen to a very low level. The notion that this means that the difficulty or standards are falling is however a false one. In the 1970s the government funded student places and there was a strict cap on numbers. The system was therefore rigged to keep the numbers down. It had little to do with standards or ability of the students or indeed made little concession to how fair it might be. Many with lower grades, that may only have been due to a small drop in percentage marks in an exam, were diverted into clearing or into the Polytechnics that were rapidly advancing in reputation. After all, the experience of universities was that A-level Grades did not accurately predict degree grades. Many students were ill prepared for something they did not know or understand. The suspicion was that others with advantage were well briefed about the process and had been better prepared in well resourced private schools.

In 1978, a series of three reports in the Guardian from John Fairhall considered the situation further with: ‘How GCSE and CSE became big business’, ‘The myths about exam standards’ and ‘A new look for education’s ability meters’ [4]. That was forty years ago and radical changes were being discussed and proposed, including reforming of A- Levels to a broader based education and four year degrees. The need for reform was in the air back then. The intensely detailed Waddell Report came out in 1977 and led to the abolition of the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) and its merger with the O-level to form the GCSE we have today [5]. This was a bold move that abolished the distinction between students arising from the 11+ and those held back for good. It let many more have a chance to compete fairly with everyone else their age. If anything promoted the social mobility agenda over time it was that move. ‘The myths about exam standards’ reported that: “Arguments about the one mark that moves a candidate from Grade B to C will go on as long as the present concept of exams lasts” and this seems to have stayed with us over time. 

More enticing was the report of the outcome of an astonishing exercise in assessing changes in standards carried out by the Schools Council and the JMB.

“A lot of work has been done on investigating whether standards have fallen or risen. The best try was made by the Joint Matriculation Board and the Schools Council. The board has all it’s A-Level scripts from 1963 to 1973. They were all remarked in every possible way, using 1963 marking guidelines of 1973 papers and vica versa. But in the end it was impossible to compare effectively the 1963 and 1973 papers. The content of A-level Chemistry had changed so much that comparison was ruled out. The same with maths and even more so with English”

This work was reported in detail later in 1980 [6]. The realisation that my JMB A-Level Physics paper from 1972 and the repeat paper  I took in 1973 had actually been remarked was enticing. Back in 1972 there was no talk of asking for a remark. Could it be that 1963 marking guidelines might have put me up a grade? A possibility that still intrigues me today.

Future shock.

Exams and their questions and answers change but students remain the same. I have observed this in cohorts of students over 35 years. See my comments on the video clip below of an interview with BBC Northern Ireland in 2015. 

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’ [7] 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 t
hose before them.

It’s the individual that counts.

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’ [8] 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. 

After concentrating so hard on their studies, many will be stung by the realisation that the cost will be high and they need to get their funding sorted out fast. The next few weeks will be a defining moment for many. Teachers will be relieved by some students and saddened by others whilst always looking over their shoulders at the management that might have expected more from them and their classes. The pressure is immense.

The times ahead.

University will come as a genuine ‘future shock’ to them. Then new so called ‘tougher’ A-Levels that Damian Hinds refers to in: “I think the system has responded incredibly well to the reforms, and we’ve see that coming through in the results. I don’t apologise for saying we should have high academic standards…..Part of school, a big part, is about preparing young people for the reality of life, which does have its ups and its down. Ultimately we do need to have examinations” might not have the effect desired as it is hard to see how examinations reflect the “reality of life” other than they are a reality in themselves. 

University examinations do not generally adjust the grade boundaries. It is possible for everyone to get a first class mark on a paper one year just as many could flunk the same paper the next. Advances in knowledge and understanding mean that the same question requires a different answer year on year. Furthermore, different valid answers and examples deployed by different students on the same paper may yield the same marks. In ‘reality’, there is no ‘model’ answer to fall back on; only knowledge and understanding. I tell students that it is not really a test of themselves but that they should see it as an opportunity to show us what they have learned during the year. This requires a different mental attitude to that for A-levels and it is an approach that does reduce the fear and stress for some.

In the end, the students soldier on as ever. They are essentially the same as they were in 1972 and are reacting as they have always done. In the meantime, the government is ‘firefighting’ a situation that is ultimately one of their own making. They should concentrate more on ensuring that the system is fair for all those taking part. The students will move on and take care of advances in knowledge and technology if everyone has a fair chance on A-Level playing field. We need to be sure that no one is disadvantaged because of their circumstances through arbitrary decisions on exam grades. We live in an information driven world that is revealing a tarnished history of a lack of fairness and opportunity in this respect. It engenders a level of cynicism and mistrust that has to be countered by example at every turn. Time will tell if the A-levels have indeed become fairer or that the old biases remain.

Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 


[1] Edexcel grade boundaries leaked ahead of A-level results day. Schools Week Wed 15th Aug 2018,
[2] GCE – Sitting in with the markers. The Observer 10 July 1977
[3] GCE – Pass or fail – How the examiners decide. The Observer 17 July 1977
[4] 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
[5] The Waddell Report (1978) School Examinations. London: Her Majesty's Stationery
Office 1978. See:
6] Standards at GCE A-level: 1963 and 1973: a pilot investigation of examination standards in three subjects. T Christie, GM Forrest - 1980 - Macmillan Education
[7] Future Shock By Alvin Toffler, New York: Random House, 1970.
Future Shock is "too much change in too short a period of time".
[8] Middle-class teenagers 'play the system to get into top universities' The Guardian 12 August 2018.

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