Thursday, August 17, 2006

#88 on A level results and electricians

current music - 'Tubular Bells' by Mike Oldfield
current mood - frustrated (I am really getting into Linux but by golly it's a bugger to configure)

So we are greeted with the news today that most of the kids who stayed on for A levels have passed them and yet again the same old same old debate kicks off again - are they getting easier or are the kids getting smarter etc.

Rant number one is at non-lives who ring into radio chat shows and say 'well i did my A levels in 1962 and they were bloody hard then and only 3 people in the country who passed and we lived in a cardboard box and we had to lick it clean every morining and then work 25 hours a day down pit...' and so on and so on. Yeah A levels have changed and rightfully so in my view. Quite frankly anyone who, in my day, could cram two years work into their head and come up with the answers for a three hour exam was either lucky or slightly freakish.

Having said that I think the pendulum has swung a bit too far. Didn't the examining boards suspect that by allowing the pupils to do coursework at home, some over anxious parents might help (FFS). And I'm not talking about getting mum to colour in the bars on the graphs. In this age of communication when one pupil has worked it out (or got their uncle with a degree in physics to work it out) all the pupils are going to know about it.

My favoured option mirrors some (and looking back on it, not enough) of the courses I read at university. There we had 18 week semesters broken into study, revision and then exam phases. One essay mid way through the course to check we were on the ball and one exam at the end - three hours, three questions bosh. Harsh but fair. It made you revise but you knew you only had fifteen weeks to revise, not two years. And if you buggered up the exam your essay score would usually bump the average and if you buggered up the essay as well, well you probably deserved the fail. Harsh but fair. You are there to learn after all. Now if they applied that to A levels, maybe examiners would get a more satisfactory picture. A terms work and then an exam. Bosh. First year results to give a grade average and away you go on the second year. Bugger it up you have to repeat the year.

Actually my really favoured option is to do what we have been doing in Key Stage One for ages now. Just hand in the teacher assessment and forget about stupid bleedin' exams. Ask any teacher worth their salt and they will be able to tell you within a gnat's crotchet what level any pupil is on and what that pupil needs to do next to move on to the next level. That's what we do. That's why we are shit hot at our job. That's why we get paid so much?!

Broadly speaking I think the kids are getting smarter. For several reasons. Firstly we do get brighter as a nation as time goes by (academically that is, not morally). How long ago was it that most of the country was illiterate? When I went to school we did electric circuits with bulbs, batteries and wires in High Shcool. Now we teach it in Year 2. We are teaching more stuff in better ways to younger kids becausethey are ready to learn it. No wonder they can pass the top tier exams.

Secondly, the A level curriculum has changed very little over the past few years. Now this is a key point. When governments stop interfering in schools, teachers get on with what they are good at getting on with - teaching. Even if the system is a bit crap, they can still make it work. I tell you, when the goal posts have wheels on to make it easier to move them, when the only consistent thing is the amount of change, when the secretary of state states, 'change is here to stay', our jobs become very difficult, almost to the point of imposibility. That's what pisses teachers off. More than the money.

And thirdly, kids have wised up to the fact that if they want to get on in the world they need a degree. And the route to University is through A levels.

Well I say bollocks to that.

I failed all my A levels. I was immature and very unhappy. There was no pastoral support at school. Home was a mess and I wanted to be there less than I wanted to be at school. The teaching was pretty crap as I recall and looking back on it it was the biggest mistake of my life to date, especially as I already had a job in th bag which I backed out of to stay on at the advice of the careers teacher. I'm not trying to pass the buck - I deserved what I got and my only regret looking back was that no one, including me, had the balls to say this isn't working sooner, and let me sit through those awful exams knowing already what the outcome was.

To continue the autobiography, I went to wrok and eight years later, with a BTEC A level equivalent from night school under my belt, I went to university to study for my BEd in which I got a first, thus proving (to myself) that I wasn't thick because I couldn't get an A level.

Now University was great for me and so has been my career as a teacher since. Why? Because I had eight years from the University of Life to help me do my job. So many of the kids I studied with had never left school. And don't start talking to me about gap years. FFS. Back packing to Burma for a couple of months does not prepare you for the real world. One year is not enough.

Now my mate D is an electrician. I honestly don't know what his educational qualifications are but I tell you what, he is never out of work. Come to think of it have you ever met a sparks or a plumber or a tiler who is short of work or cash? Yes, they need a level of academic achievement, of course they do, but the middle class, so called, intelligensia peer down their noses at those who don't have letters after their name as if their job is menial and pointless whilst clapping our hands with joy because Johnny has got three A's which means he can go to the University of Nowhere to study Balderdash and Frisbee.

It seems to me that kids who study really hard for A levels and then go on to University believing they are guaranteed their passport to the real world are putting their ladders up against the wrong wall.

The debate should not be about how hard A levels are. It should be about what is the point of A levels. Should they simply be a route to University or should they be a means of preparing brighter pupils for a successful place among the workforce.

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