The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
I Was A Teenage Hothoused Supergeek
by Phil Grant

As Jabez Clegg, the first cuckoo of late summer, has noted, the annual season of A Level news stories and comments is upon us.

Polly Toynbee is looking forward to settling down to Thursday's newspapers and their obligatory coverage of "hothoused supergeeks with monstrous strings of mega-results". Reader, I must confess: at least as far as the local press was concerned, I was once one of these hothoused supergeeks; thankfully, this was before the wide spread of the internet, so the pictures are likely to remain obscure.

The more serious thrust of Toynbee's article is her attempt to counter the idea that more distinction between candidates is needed at the top end of the A Level grade scale, and that there is a connection between this and equal opportunities in higher education.

"If Oxford, Cambridge and a few others find it hard to choose the very, very best from among that tiny elite, so what? Let them put the names in a hat and pluck them out at random. They will all be pretty good anyway. To pick those with the best chance of getting firsts, lean towards the comprehensive-school applicants who have done well without extra cramming; research shows they tend to do better."

But this is not going to happen. The frustrated and understandable response of top universities is pretty much to discount A Levels, and rely on their own exams, tests and interviews. Is this helpful to students in state schools, where few teachers have the knowledge or the time to focus on top students to prepare them for these bespoke hurdles? Of course not. The benefits will go to those who have, in Toynbee's words, "been over-crammed in private schools".

University entrance apart, state school students are being sold short intellectually. The response one often hears to the charges of falling standards is that much less factual recall is necessary in A Levels these days. This is true, but the unspoken implication that this has resulted in a greater focus on analytical skills is not. There is very little that can't be thoroughly prepared for. When the current exam is upheld as the standard to which schools should aim, their students are not going to get much intellectual training that isn't relevant to the syllabus. Strained state schools - quite rationally in terms of their targets - prune back to the level they need to get students the grades.

Liberals value education for its own sake, and we value equality of opportunity. For both of these reasons we need a return to a public exam system that gives high achievers, just as much as anyone else, an intellectual challenge and a fair record of their achievement.
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:20 pm  
  • At 18 August, 2005 09:03, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    The other problem with Polly's scheme of entry by lot is that the weaker entrants will struggle to cope with their course and will drop out.

  • At 18 August, 2005 15:49, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    When I was at Cambridge recently, I did not meet one person from Winchester/Eton/Westminster who had had a practice interview or been 'crammed'. If anything it was the grammar school kids who had all of these benefits. And some of the Comps who were used to sending people to certain colleges.
    Also, where is the research which says that more kids from comps got firsts? I have never seen any.

  • At 18 August, 2005 21:06, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Anonymous - pupils from those schools are taught by people with PhDs, stretched far beyond the sylabus (because they are exempt from the ridiculous national curriculum), have an expectation that they will get there because its their birthright, have friends who are there in the colleges whom they can visit, etc etc.

    When you go to a comprehensive school where you are the first and only person from that school to go there, where your teachers have never seen a STEP paper in their life before, and where you have no idea what to expect in the interview process (as happened to me) then its a little bit different, hmmm?

  • At 18 August, 2005 21:27, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    I went to a comprehensive and had extra classes to tutor me beyond the curriculum (with about five others) for the Oxbridge entrance exam. In particular my Physics teacher was a PhD.

    I don't suppose that's the practice throughout the state sector, but it shows that state schools can and do cram their children as suggested.

  • At 18 August, 2005 22:40, Anonymous Steve Travis said…

    Has the Special paper disappeared? When I were a lad this was the way of sorting the wheat from the chaff - surely that could be revived. I sat Physics Special (and got a 2) way back in 1987.

    Sitting a Special Paper would allow A Grade students to be further differentiated.

  • At 18 August, 2005 23:31, Anonymous phil grant said…

    There is something called an Advanced Extension Award, which I think is similar in intent to a Special Paper, but I don't know much about.

    Special Papers still existed when I did them in 1996 (despite that being the first year students completed the new modularised syllabuses: the reduction in intellectual demand between 1995 and 1996 was gaping). I don't know when and why they were replaced.

  • At 18 August, 2005 23:40, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "When you go to a comprehensive school where you are the first and only person from that school to go there, where your teachers have never seen a STEP paper in their life before, and where you have no idea what to expect in the interview process (as happened to me) then its a little bit different, hmmm?"

    I doubt it is harder to get in that the private/grammar school doppelganger, but it is a hell of a lot less likely that you would have applied in the first place. The answer is to get more people from schools without a tradition of sending people to Cambridge to not tell their charges not to bother applying.
    I certainly don't think that private schools give any benefits over the state schools apart from the biggest one of all- they encourage people to apply.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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