A Levels and GCSEs

A few years ago I gave a talk to students in Cambridge. There followed one of those rare conference events when  I was asked an unusual and difficult question that was not drawn from the spin and media commentary of the week. “Mr Redwood, do you think the A levels I gained were of the same quality as the ones you gained?”

I had never expressed a public view on exam standards. A series of traps flashed into my mind of how certain answers could in true BBC fashion be spun or misinterpreted against me. I decided on a safe answer. “I have  no reason to think that the  Advanced  levels I got were of a lower standard than the ones you must have got. Do you think otherwise?”  As I feared  but had decided to dodge, he was sure his A levels were of a lower standard and he was worried about what he saw as the downwards drift. I tried to rally him and others in the audience by saying I understood that the Exam Boards were very conscious of the need to guarantee comparable standards between years, and reflected that in the chosen mixture of  the complexity of the papers, the severity of the marking scheme and the choice of grade boundary year by year.

This year some newspapers and commentators are asking the student’s question again. How can it be, they ask,  that 2021 has seen by far and away the best results in both A levels and GCSE s ever, when we are also told that the education of young people was harmed by  school closures, a shortage of face to face teaching and by the imitations of the on line alternative. We are told that there can be no proper comparison and that this year’s assessment is fair for the students involved given the difficulties lockdown created. It is also a year when some schools decided to teach the full curriculum for the exams and used new technology well to do so, whilst others felt more constrained by technology limitations or were delayed by slow deliveries of personal equipment to pupils in need. We are told the gap got bigger between different regions and income groups which is not a desirable outcome.

Next year will be a crucial year. Assuming that the remaining measures against CV 19 can be dropped as the vaccines work their magic the Exam Boards and teaching profession have to decide how to get back to public exams and how to calibrate the difficulty of papers, the breadth of the syllabus, the severity of the marking scheme and the grade boundaries anew. I do think exams are the least bad way to assess learning and achievement, and it should be easier to be fair between every student cohort if each year is examined to a similar standard on a similarly difficult and wide course. If too many get Grade A  Advanced levels then elite universities will simply invent sterner tests to differentiate between the good and the very good. There are signs that some universities are inventing tests to do just that. I would be interested in thoughts about how  the system should be re-established or reformed next year. There will doubtless be more arguments about the role if any of course work assessed by teachers, and the desirability or otherwise of students being able to take aids like dictionaries and smart calculators into exams.


  1. Richard1
    August 14, 2021

    Abolish GCSE. Replace A-levels with the International Baccalaureat or equivalent.

    1. Richard1
      August 14, 2021

      And turbo-charge the technical colleges pioneered by Kenneth Baker.

      1. Hope
        August 14, 2021

        Gove was going to bring change years ago! Cameron got rid of him for trying to bring in that change. He caved to the unions and woke brigade. Surely your memory is not that bad? JR, your chaotic outfit has been been in power 11 years, there is no excuse, no where to hide. Another disaster policy failure to add to Brexit, economy, immigration and health.

        Get rid of comprehensive education system it has failed. Bring back grammar schools and change teaching from group centred baby sitting to dictative teaching. Countries using our former methods at top of world rankings, the current everyone passes system fails all pupils. Take on the unions and woke to bring social mobility through a merited education system. Get rid of useless universities, bring back tech colleges and polytechnics- we need skilled tradesmen.

        If you want any policy achievement in govt get rid of Johnson!

    2. Lifelogic
      August 14, 2021

      I would not have like this at all. I was very grateful for being able to drop everything but my Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, General Studies and Specials in Physics as they had back then at 16.

      1. Richard1
        August 14, 2021

        Neither would I have but that. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a better system.

      2. Richard1
        August 14, 2021

        The point I meant to make was a few decades ago A-levels did enable study to a higher level than a broader curriculum would have allowed. These days they don’t so the balance of advantage has changed.

        1. Mark
          August 14, 2021

          A levels had already descended to about the standard of O levels before they became worthless as a result of inadequate time spent on learning during the pandemic. It used to be quite common for brighter students to take at least 8 O levels in the 5th form which gave a broad foundation before specialisation at A level. Additional subjects might be added on the side during the 6th form, or as AO levels in subjects being studied for A level as a way of keeping exam practice. Many good jobs could be started on the basis of 5 O levels and 2 A levels without a degree. Additional S (scholarship) level papers could be sat that were somewhat tougher than the underlying A level which helped to sort out the most able students for the best universities.

          Less academic children tended to sit CSEs, for which a top grade 1 pass was rated as equivalent to an O level pass. In general, exams were designed to cater to the very different levels of ability of schoolchildren, and to try to get them to the best standard they could manage, with further vocational qualifications also available after school or even university while doing various forms of apprenticeship – from plumbers and carpenters through accountants, lawyers, nurses and doctors. An education system can do no more that try to maximise the potential of all its students.

          Now that GCSEs with a common syllabus have to do the job previously split between exams that catered more to pupil ability the result is a dumbing down of the system which echoes through A levels and on to university, where children now have to go to learn things they were previously taught in school. At university, to mark themselves out many find a need to do a second degree, where previously a first or 2:1 would have been sufficient to progress into work at a top job, and second degrees were rarities most commonly taken by those intending on an academic career or one demanding exceptional academic abilities in STEM subjects.

          We can only restore academic standards by being prepared to differentiate again across the ability spectrum. A huge benefit of doing so would be a substantial increase in educational productivity. With so much lost to the pandemic, it would make enormous sense to do this to provide the catch-up otherwise unavailable that threatens to blight the education of a whole generation of children from age 5 to 21.

    3. Nota#
      August 14, 2021

      @Richard1 – Why, how does that illustrate the best of the best

  2. Everhopeful
    August 14, 2021

    Some years back in order to prove that A levels had become easier I undertook to do Archaeology A level at evening classes.
    Once a week lessons plus school holiday plus it being a one year course meant not a lot of lesson time.
    Also I had not one single scooby! And even less interest as it turned out. I was no true believer that any old “post hole” could really be identified.
    Anyway, surprisingly the exam paper was totally traditional..similar to the ones I was familiar with. Difficult in other words.
    The exam by old standards was a disaster but it didn’t matter at all…A level not needed.
    I got a B!! So something had changed!! The marking??

    1. Everhopeful
      August 14, 2021

      One thing I did realise.
      Archaeology has become SO politicised.
      Used to prove whatever the woke wants to prove!

      1. Mitchel
        August 14, 2021

        Remember that ridiculous campaign to assert that Cleopatra was black.

  3. DOM
    August 14, 2021

    A pretty pointless article if the destructive and highly influential role of the self-serving, nefarious teaching unions are not taken into account. These now all powerful activist institutions allied to Labour have managed to put themselves in a position, in no small part thanks to Tory appeasement, that they can directly determine curriculum content, method of exam assessment, methodology of grade determination and even who the Education Secretary is under a Socialist Tory administration

    Grades are now manipulated to reflect well on the unionised teaching profession and that is their only purpose. If grades were constantly falling as per harder exams teachers and their unions would be exposed to criticism and the NEU and their ilk refuse to tolerate any such temerity

    Yes, the NEU. A teaching union so powerful it can even control the public policy of a Tory PM. Don’t believe me? You watch Johnson’s tedious utterances on any public sector issue. He never once criticises their output, ever. All is amoral and political now with the new progressive Tory party

    British education has now become nothing more than a route towards Marxist indoctrination. Questioning, challenging and destroying ideas has become a massive no go area

    1. Everhopeful
      August 14, 2021

      I am certain that much of the recent and ongoing madness has been pushed by the unions.
      Whence the incredible Left Wing volte face regarding freedom and vaccination? Desperate to keep this madness going by extending the economy- wrecking measures.
      Lefties here pushing us towards ruination because that is what they want. ( And presumably so do the tories?).
      Democrats,( including high ups), who under Trump spoke loudly and freely about mistrusting the vaccine…that would now be a crime!

      1. Micky Taking
        August 14, 2021

        The title ‘lecturer’ is a give-away. Fulfills the desire to tell everyone what you think. No room for other opinions, pretty similar to unionism – so you can imagine how unapproachable they would be.
        A marriage made in heaven.

  4. DOM
    August 14, 2021

    Can someone please tell this Home Secretary that her adoption of identity politics to inform public policy and her public responses is both vulgar and unedifying? Crime is crime irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator. To try and use criminality to justify further totalitarian impositions is beyond moral and decent

    John’s party has one simply function. It is to oppose the poison of Labour and their poison. Instead they have embraced it as an act of political protection and passed on the destructive consequences to innocent British citizens who no longer tick the correct progressive boxes

  5. Lifelogic
    August 14, 2021

    The obvious solution is just to publish the percentile the students are in (relative to all those who took the exam). Then perhaps also the average quality of people taking that exam (from their other average results). This as some subject like Further Maths, Music are largely taken by good mathematicians or keen musicians where Maths, English etc. are taken by almost every one. This largely stops boards pushing grade inflation (they do this as then they get more applicants and fees). It is certainly easier to revise now and far quicker to look things up or get video explanations.

    It is worrying that some of the exam questions not are just pain wrong or poorly worded or vague. Indoctrination rather than scientific truth very often, particularly on “renewable energy” (there is no such thing) and the climate alarmist religion. Why is wood renewable but old wood (coal) not? You can easily manufacture natural gas too. But even some other science questions are just wrong or absurd simplifications. I want to see them resting understanding rather than merely memory recall of their “facts”. Often you know what they want for the marks but it is not actually the truth.

    1. Alan Jutson
      August 14, 2021

      Having only taken examinations more than half a century ago, I have no idea how past and present compares, so I wonder, did the examinations I took all those years ago have a flexible pass mark, depending upon the performance of a group, because I cannot remember that being the case.
      Likewise in maths you did not get any marks for methodology, you simply had to show your workings out, and get the correct answer to get marks, you got zero if you got the answer wrong.
      How on earth can someone get less that 50% of the answers correct, and still pass a maths test, its a farce.

      Have we now reached a stage were we are using WOKE thoughts to give/gain percentage points so as not to disappoint. Well you used the correct method, you got it wrong because you could simply not add up, divide or multiply, so you got it wrong( even with the use of a calculator) but we will give you points for trying.

      1. Micky Taking
        August 14, 2021

        I might be wrong but I think back in the GCE ‘O’ level days the top grade 1 or A of Pure maths ( not sure about others, I sat Applied, and Additional too ) was supposed to be the top 10% of passes. A pretty clear indication you could understand.

        1. Lifelogic
          August 14, 2021

          Indeed and lots of people did actually fail almost none do now.

          1. glen cullen
            August 15, 2021

            don’t mention ‘Calculus ‘….once taught at ‘O’ level but to hard for the millennium student

  6. Everhopeful
    August 14, 2021

    From what I have read there is a push/movement from some directions to abolish exams and rely on teacher assessment.
    How about an exam at about age 11 (!) which would sort out academic kids from those with different talents.
    Let the academics go on to examdom and then actually provide the others with meaningful training. Like the Secondary Modern schools used to…only obviously up to date.
    And MUCH better funded!

    1. SM
      August 14, 2021

      Just because one is academically astute doesn’t mean one has no technical or practical talents, and vice-versa.

      Just a quick glance around generations of my family and those of friends (all grammar school pupils) demonstrates – in my view – that selection at 11 is too early to prove anything other than sorting out the children who need extra training to get them up to a reasonable average.

      Having different exam boards has always been open to abuse by schools working out which boards tend to be ‘easier’ – my school was doing it in the early 1960s!

      1. Mark
        August 14, 2021

        I think that waiting until age 11 is too late to start evaluating children’s educational needs. Children with learning difficulties show up in primary reception class – as do the brighter children. Some have learning difficulties that can be largely overcome with some early corrective effort, while others may not really be able to maintain the same sort of pace as their age peers and need a different approach. Likewise, brighter children are capable of progressing much faster than the current school system permits.

        I readily acknowledge that some children are late developers, and others may go through a period of reduced progress, often due to issues in their home life or bullying in school, all of which makes attempting to decide the fate of a child at one particular age a fraught and somewhat unfair process. A good system allows for these facts of life, and encourages children to flourish when they are able to do so.

  7. Margaret Brandreth-
    August 14, 2021

    Education is changing . The under 11 year olds are completing work that in my education and my children’s education would not have been started until about 12 years old. Maths at an early age seem to be more advanced with thinking skills more forcefully incorporated into the curriculum .

    English comprehension seems to have deteriorated and as language is at the basis of all written work ;there seems to be a problem , however the content of subjects is perhaps more advanced for the youngsters today . This will reflect in later years and A levels. The education system has had to accommodate families where the primary language is not English , but overall primary education: well done, keep it up.

  8. Brian Tomkinson
    August 14, 2021

    JR: “Assuming that the remaining measures against CV 19 can be dropped as the vaccines work their magic ”
    What “magic” would that be? Have you joined the band of vaccine evangelists? You do know that these jabs don’t prevent infection or transmission of this virus? Do you support giving these experimental gene therepies to children? Do you care about the associated deaths and serious side effects people have experienced following these jabs or are they just coincidences or, as some would say, collateral damage?

    Reply There is plenty of evidence that most people’s decision to have the vaccine has greatly reduced serious case numbers and deaths. I do not support compulsory vaccination.

    1. acorn
      August 14, 2021

      I agree with Pres’ Biden, C19 will morph into the pandemic of the un-vaccinated. These persons can’t be allowed to wander freely among the vaccinated. There will need to be the equivalent of the old “Leper colonies”; off-shore in redundant Cruise Ships I suggest. Their entertainment will consist of endless videos of catastrophic floods and wildfires caused by climate change which, naturally, they will continue to deny. 😉

      1. Mitchel
        August 14, 2021

        Our useless new aircraft carriers could become the new “hulks”!

      2. Lifelogic
        August 14, 2021


    2. Brian Tomkinson
      August 14, 2021

      Is the evidence to which you refer related to tests that are inaccurate, statistics that can and have been manipulated e.g. death numbers have been inflated to include anyone who died within 28 days of testing positive for CV19 whatever the actual cause of death? What confidence can anyone have in any ‘evidence’ when there has been such manipulation of statistics?

      1. Hat man
        August 14, 2021

        Ah, but that’s the ‘magic’, you see, Brian! The Covid restrictions were all about controlling a virus (not about controlling people, oh no, certainly not). As you say, the vaccines don’t reliably stop infection or transmission, nor were they claimed to by their manufacturers. Yet nevertheless, somehow they’re controlling the virus. So now we don’t need the measures any more. Just like that. Don’t look too hard, sit back and enjoy the performance – it’s magic!

      2. mancunius
        August 14, 2021

        I agree with Brian. The stats are so corrupted as to make any summing up impossible. All we know is that a virulent infection came from China, killed off many of the elderly and insufficiently immune, has a mortality rate of 83 (one year over the average age of death, and not even a prime cause of death) and has confirmed the NHS’s inefficiency and the urban population’s generally unhealthy condition.

    3. Everhopeful
      August 14, 2021

      Isn’t it the case that the assumed vaccine “success” is based on a computer model?
      Surely, since a virus does exactly as it pleases what MIGHT have happened has to be guesswork ( poor guesswork really if based on a model!).
      Maybe it was all the hand washing that worked….or the weather?
      And why are the reported side effects just dismissed out of hand?
      Other vaccination programmes have been abandoned rapidly with much less reported evidence.

  9. a-tracy
    August 14, 2021

    The decent universities with hard courses will have to set their own examinations as a separate measure with unreleased papers to swat up on each year. Done in timed tests on-line as they do in the professions requiring a high level of logic, mathematics or stem in depth knowledge.

    1. IanT
      August 14, 2021

      It would seem that University entrance exams are the best way to maintain standards – assuming that high standards are still their priority…

  10. Roy Grainger
    August 14, 2021

    I would assume if we have the same Education Minister next year then it will be equally as big a shambles as this year.

    Reply Exams are directed by independent Boards and assessments by teachers.

    1. Lifelogic
      August 14, 2021

      Boards who have an incentive to give higher and higher grades to encourage more and more entrance fees as schools migrate to easier exam results.

  11. a-tracy
    August 14, 2021

    I have no truck with teacher assessments. Favouritism, slewed marking to pander to their own style of writing, mistakes and covering their own backsides.

    It is also grossly unfair on children in schools with a high teacher turnover, in one A level two year course my youngest son had three changes of teacher in three separate subjects, each not picking up properly after the previous end of year 1 teacher. His new English teacher didn’t like his style of writing, he went from getting high A grade course marks to B and C, all of his external papers were A and A *, she bought his mark down to 1 mark off an A, I asked afterwards how many people she graded A in the exam coursework got A’s in the external exams the answer was zero. It doesn’t matter now, he went on to get a first class degree but she stopped his entry into three universities. All from a woman who had known him eight months, new to the school, there isn’t time to appeal properly and the school just shrugged and said well he got into a great university.

    One teen when it came down to it bombed out in her A level Maths exam and left the room she couldn’t answer the paper she was crying afterwards, she got a medical exclusion and the teachers awarded her three A*s and she got in to Oxford without taking any exams that year with just teacher grades signed off and recommended by the Head. This has been going on for years, the chosen ones will get in no matter what happens. Just as those that don’t quite fit in to the establishment will get marked under what they need by subjective teachers/professors.

    This doesn’t come from a parent who feels her children didn’t achieve their potential all of mine got first class masters degrees. The whole process opened my eyes though, they were the first children in both our families to go to university.

    They should not have stopped NAGTY the version set up by the Tories.
    If teachers are assessing then random marking assessments need to take place, especially if someone is accused of under marking or over marking.
    This new marking system is unfair on the true top 5% worthy of an A* and the cohorts ahead and just behind them. Sweeties for all but watch your cavities .

  12. Everhopeful
    August 14, 2021

    So why DID successive governments purposely dumb down education?
    Equality of outcome?
    For whose benefit?

    1. Ed M
      August 14, 2021

      Boys need a certain amount of competition (not too much or they turn into tyrants. But not too little either or they turn into wimps). Sadly, our education system is flooded with people turning our fine young men into wimps (in days gone by, it was the opposite – look at Charles Dickens and the way boys were often treated back then – but now we’ve gone too far in the other direction).

      I say not too much competition (in education at least) because we don’t want to turn our fine young British men into nerdish scholars (although we need a certain amount). A man needs to be accomplished at many things not just education: sport, the art of war (national service), the arts, how to understand women and make them happy (in Renaissance times, some men would take 2 years off solely just to focus on this), and much more.

  13. Sharon
    August 14, 2021

    My two sons both went to the same grammar school, an old one started up in 1600’s. When the national curriculum first came in, the school would teach it and then during the rest of the school year teach more in depth and further around the subject. When preparing for GCSE’s and A levels, the boys were given past exam papers to practise on, and were told that they were harder, but that it was good practice for them.

    When my eldest son was doing A level practice he was told he’d gone way beyond the expectations of the exams and was shown how to keep within the limitations.

    If that doesn’t prove that exams are easier…

  14. Bill B.
    August 14, 2021

    If children aren’t taught properly, how can they be examined on the syllabus they were supposed to learn?

    The ball is in Johnson’s court. Will he allow the lockdown zealots in teaching unions to decide educational policy next school year, i.e. close schools once the next flu season gets going? If he does, he will land us in the same position next August, and we’ll again be scratching our heads wondering what to do about A levels etc.

    We need a Prime Minister who can govern in the national interest, not in the interest of political and commercial lobbies, as we’ve had for most of the ‘pandemic’.

  15. Dave Andrews
    August 14, 2021

    Re the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, would it be better to support and strengthen their government forces whilst the Taliban are out in the open, and whilst there is still a foothold in that country?
    Once the Taliban have taken complete control of the country, Al Qaeda camps will be set up, plotting and carrying out terrorist activity in the West. Dealing with them at that point will be much more difficult.
    Should Afghan refugees be accepted into this country given the mess we’ve made in theirs?
    Any costs involved to come out of Tony Blair’s wealth first.

    1. formula57
      August 14, 2021

      @ Dave Andrews “Should Afghan refugees be accepted into this country given the mess we’ve made in theirs?” – if they decide to come here, there is no question of “accepted”, they will arrive regardless for the Home Secretary has shown she could not stop them (600 arrivals by dinghy yesterday).

    2. bigneil - newer comp
      August 14, 2021

      ” Once the Taliban have taken complete control of the country, ” – just to carify – is that Afghanistan – 0r the UK? No doubt some are already here, living comfortably on our taxes after being “rescued” by our wonderful Border Force chaps.

    3. Mitchel
      August 14, 2021

      The US embassy in Kabul have been told to burn their flags lest they be “misused by the Taliban in propaganda”.Humiliating or what.At least the Soviets withdrew in good order with their equipment and the government they left behind survived for a couple of years.

    4. Know-Dice
      August 14, 2021

      Make no mistake, the current situation in Afghanistan is totally due to the religious zealots in their country. The West tried to bring peace and prosperity to the population, but the Taliban are not interested in that.

      Our “wonderful” Prime minister says that “lives were NOT wasted in Afghanistan” – I fundamentally disagree with him, all respect must be given to those that served in Afghanistan especially those that died were injured and their families and relatives that endured this.

  16. Ed M
    August 14, 2021

    Bring back National Service (but for much shorter period).

    Far too many kids doing A ‘Levels who shouldn’t (they should be focusing on a trade). And focus instead on improving A ‘Level standards, and improving levels of Maths and English in general (including two hours of logic – how to think logically – best class I ever did at school!).

    And even more kids shouldn’t be going to University. At least 50% of university is a waste of time. These kids should be learning a trade, or doing short, 1-year useful courses such as accountancy, digital marketing, coding etc ..

    National Service is about getting up early, making your bed – discipline. It’s also a great way to make men of young men. To make life-long friends. To become patriots. And to have GREAT fun.

  17. Ed M
    August 14, 2021

    Conservatism shouldn’t just be about education and money and things like that.
    Sir Francis Chichester hated school (Marlborough). Although gentry, Francis, aged 17, took a job as a stoker on a ship to New Zealand and boxed, in his free time, to make money. In NZ, this young man, born with a silver spoon up his whatnot, worked in the mines (the hardest job you could do in NZ back then – and they were tough guys). He worked at a logger. Then he bought his first plane. Took people for trips. Made more money. They became first man to fly, solo, from Australia to Japan. After, his 4th try, the RAF allowed Francis into the RAF and he became a brilliant instructor on how to navigate using the stars at night. He built up his own map business. And then sailed around the world as he did in 1967, a relatively old man, with cancer. But his primary goal wasn’t education or money. But ADVENTURE. The spirit of JOYFUL adventure (and money, success, happy family life all flows from this).

    We need to instil more of our young with the spirit of joyful adventure. But adventure can be tough. You need discipline. Another reason why we need to bring back national service (Francis didn’t do national service but being at Marlborough College back then was probably as good as).

    1. Mitchel
      August 14, 2021

      Is Sir Francis the new Cyrus?!

      1. Ed M
        August 15, 2021

        ‘Sir Francis new Cyrus?’ No!

        Cyrus represents the King (in Jungian sense) in men. Sir Francis represents the Warrior. And was going to go on to Oscar Wilde who represents the Lover-of-Life in men!

        These three masculine archtypes are essential in a healthy economy and civilisation. Sadly, lacking in modern world. Our young men need role models. This is fundamental to their education to turn into proper men. The type of thing Conservative Party should be thinking about and supporting. By reintroducing national service, getting their contacts in The C of E and Education to promote more of this, supporting more young people in the arts, helping more young people to become entrepreneurs and so on.

  18. formula57
    August 14, 2021

    The outcome of the exams is, clearly, in the hands of the exam boards who set them so it ought to be quite easy for the Education Department to demand they all adopt marking schemes and such other measures as are necessary to see results provide for the top grade going only to the best 5-10 per cent. of candidates (or whatever proportion is considered appropriate, likely be reference to universities’ requirements) and so on, likely also including seeing a set percentage of candidates fail.

    If such a marking scheme were published and explained, it ought to restore a good measure of credibility. (Do those involved not understand they are trading in a devalued currency that absent change will soon end up worthless?)

  19. William Long
    August 14, 2021

    I cannot say whether the current exams are any harder or easier than the ones I sat, but what is self evident is that the marking and grading system gives very different results. I remember a numeric system with nine levels. To qualify for an ‘O’ or ‘A’ level pass you had to achieve Grade 5 or above, and I remember we were told that 1 or 2 put you in the top 15%. Now ‘A’ or ‘A*’ seemingly put you in the top 44% which clearly makes a nonsense of the whole system, and that is what needs addressing, rather, I suspect than the quality of the papers.
    I do remember there was a massive difference between the academic demands of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. I have no doubt that when I left my preparatory school I was capable of passing in particuar, Latin ‘O’ level and learnt nothing new in the two years before I did so, and the same applied to several other subjects. ‘I remember ‘A’ level Latin as a very different kettle of fish. Conversely, as a comment on the private education system in that era, my first introduction to Physics and Chemistry was at age 13, and I got Grade 2 ‘O’ level in both just two years later, but would not have stood a chance if I had taken either to ‘A’ level. But in those days as our host has said, it was the University or College entrance exam that counted; the value of two ‘A’ levels was to qualify you for a County grant

  20. glen cullen
    August 14, 2021

    ”A new one-day record for illegals flooding into Britain has been set, with 592 illegal migrants acrossing the English Channel into Britain on Thursday”
    They don’t need A levels or GCSEs….they’ll now get support free every day of their lives

  21. Newmania
    August 14, 2021

    The Telegraph once published a selection of “O Level “, questions, from the 50s, and other much older material. It was fascinating to see the extraordinary level of understanding required at 16, in what were admittedly elite institutions. Not far from today`s degree level in Literature, for example. ( By the way a “ First” now means a goodish “Pass” as well )
    Nonetheless, the UK did well (prior to Brexit ) in attracting foreign students, so it clearly had something to offer.
    The two problems now facing the UK are not the ongoing adjustment of examinations. They are , firstly , the growth of a parasitic private sector by which the better off now monopolise opportunity for their children. Secondly the damage of overseas income down by Brexit to what was one of the Uk`s most successful industries.
    There seems little hope of this Government tackling either issue.

  22. ChrisS
    August 14, 2021

    It has to be obvious to everyone, irrespective of their own intelligence level, that for more than 40% of students to get an A* or A grade in 2021 compared with less than 30% just two years ago, standards have been lowered considerably. The only other explanation could be that the 2021 group are at least 15% brighter than those of 2019.

    The genie is out of the bottle and to put some discipline back into the current grading structure will only result in howls of protest from the students who take the 2022 exams who will obviously and rightly be awarded lower grades. The only solution is therefore to abandon the current structure and produce a new set of qualifications based on numbers rather than letters and at the same time publish a firm definition for each grade level.

    It is unlikely that the intelligence level of each year group can vary by more than, say, 1-2% from the long term average so setting the grade levels across the whole spectrum of results makes sense and would ensure that there is no purpose in making comparisons between years.

    All the education establishment then needs to do is decide what percentage of students get what grades, starting with the highest achievers who would obviously gain a First. That should probably be restricted to no more than the top 5% of students. The percentages of students allocated the remaining grades can then easily be established. All that would be necessary from then on is to ensure than in each and every year, the same percentages are rigorously maintained.

    I am sure that this method was the basis of the original grading system but has not been firmly enforced over the years. This erosion of standards started off long before the Pandemic. Now is an opportunity to put it right.

  23. Ed M
    August 14, 2021

    One of the reasons for The Reformation is that the Catholics were overly obsessed by education / learning etc (important as this can be). It’s bad to live too much in our heads. For our mental health in general but also when it comes to work. So much work is learned on the job. Courage / learning things on the fly are, overall, even more important than academic knowledge (unless you’re a doctor / engineer etc).

    So many of these kids are wasting their lives, by filling their heads with academic stuff that won’t help them in any practical sense. Then they have the stress of exams. And of paying off debt. If they don’t want to settle down into a serious job (yet), fine, but then do something more interesting. Go on an amazing travel adventure (whilst earning money here and there), learn a language on the fly during the travel adventure, and come back to the UK having really had an adventure (and the confidence and all-round mental health this provides) and ready to settle down into a career they enjoy and good at, get married, raise a family, and be strong patriots – helping to build up one’s country instead of being a burden to it.

  24. bigneil - newer comp
    August 14, 2021

    600 on thursday – the govt approved invasion continues – the no-choice taxpayer continues to have to pay for his own extermination.
    You must all be so proud.

  25. Nota#
    August 14, 2021

    Sir John

    Off message, but in the moment

    I note today the BBC in there usual way has had a dig about the figures you quoted on the UK’s Carbon emissions in your interview with them (A bit delayed). I guess the foundation of facts came from the usually spot on facts4eu.org/news

    The BBC in a revised after the event comeback, is suggesting your figures weren’t as implied. In a convoluted way they are suggesting that because Germany manufactures goods and the UK doesn’t, Germans contribution to world pollution is not really greater than the UK’s.

    It is possible to read into the BBC way of seeing things is that Germany is one of the good guys and the UK…..

    We pay a compulsory license fee(there fore tax) to be insulted.

    As an aside and a point a lot of us in your comments pages keep making, importing without factoring in the additional World Pollution it creates is in itself a contradiction. The UK Government in all its glorious ‘grandstanding virtue signaling’ is trying to encourage the people of the UK towards excessive consumerism and turn the tide on Global Warming by importing from the Worlds Polluters. The UK Government policies are all directed at speeding up Global Warming, it is only their words that stroke the opposite.

  26. agricola
    August 14, 2021

    Remember , the 2021 results only reflect on what students could do in very difficult circumstances. It has highlighted the difference between the private sector where learning in adverse circumstances was alleviated by the amount of money available, and the public sector where the effect was patchy and only reflected the amount of money not available. This difference existed before Covid which served to exacerbate it.

    The teachers in the public sector could only do their best at assessing in very difficult circumstances. If anyone is at fault it can only be government who banned exams and forced an inadequately funded system upon both pupils and staff. To those students who feel hard done by I can only say that in my opinion university can be expensive and overrated in the great scheme of life, unless of course you wish to be a brain surgeon. There are many routes to success and it is dependant on how you measure success.

  27. Nota#
    August 14, 2021

    Isn’t the whole point of grading to find ‘the best of the best’. Then take the cream of the crop, inspire them further and help them achieve their full potential.

    It seems inconceivable that everyone say in maths is identical in ability and understanding. Surely there must be some standout students with exception grasp of their subjects.

    Teachers cannot know how good their pupils are when compared to others in other parts of the Country. So a top grade putting some one in the top 10% of the whole country without ever knowing it is true, is a teacher saying look at me ‘I am great at my job’ because I said so.

    It is the student that pays in the long run, not the teacher.

  28. Denis Cooper
    August 14, 2021

    Off topic, in a statement from the Northern Ireland Office:

    “We are seeking to agree significant changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU, not to scrap it.”

    When is the UK government going to learn that you will never get anything significant from negotiations with the EU unless you are prepared to walk away, in this case by scrapping the protocol? Or, if they already know that, when are they going to start acting in our interests rather than those of the EU?

    Why did it become necessary for me to write a letter to my local newspaper:


    accusing Theresa May of behaving as though she was an impartial intermediary seeking to broker a deal between the UK and the EU, rather than acting in our national interests?

    And why am I now having to write another letter pointing out that she sold the pass in August 2017, and how our present predicament ultimately springs from her divided loyalties?

    1. Denis Cooper
      August 14, 2021


      “Government hiring ‘permanent’ high-paid civil servants to handle Northern Ireland Protocol”

      “The government has issued job adverts for four senior civil servants to oversee the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol – saying that the posts are “permanent”.”

  29. Nota#
    August 14, 2021

    Sir John

    I guess your early education was in Kent. In Kent there was always differences with the rest of the Country. The Grammar School in Kent didn’t have the same connotations as it did in other parts of the Country.

    In some instances in Kent there were 3 levels of Secondary Schools, Secondary Modern, Technical, and Grammar. It wasn’t unusual as pupils abilities matured or changed for them to move between these different layers. In Kent it was never hung out as a class thing it was about reaching potential

    Past and present comparisons. Logic says todays candidate should out shine their predecessors. The difference now is how would you know, we are in the new world of ‘entitlement’ if one student gets an A* they must all get one.

  30. Tad Davison
    August 14, 2021

    I hated school and the classroom environment. 47 years after I left, I still resent being made to concentrate on what others wanted to teach me, and not what I wanted to learn. Whilst my classmates were learning about ‘Dick and Dora’, I was taking vacuum cleaners to bits to See how they worked and putting them back together again.

    I left school without any qualifications whatsoever, but I love learning. I spend most of my waking hours engaged in that rewarding process. My ‘self-education’ has proven time and time again to be much more comprehensive than most university graduates; I am an accomplished designer and published writer; and my services are in demand by some incredibly influential people – surprisingly so. Yet if I were to apply for a job, I would be instantly disqualified because so many vacancies require the applicant to have a degree in something, even if it’s generally regarded as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ piece of paper. Irony of ironies, two of my three kids have degrees which I helped them get by being engaged in their respective courses, often re-writing essays, but both will say university was a waste of time and certainly a waste of money!

    So we need to ask ourselves, are we not overlooking otherwise erstwhile candidates because of a rather outdated precondition in that degrees are essential?

    My eldest daughter doesn’t have a degree, yet owns a thriving business and makes twice the amount the other two make combined.

    One-size-fits-all education is wrong and needs a complete overhaul to sift the wheat from the chaff for the nation to produce real innovators. Unless of course, we just want to produce a generation of sterile PC lefty drones with little ability to think for themselves.

    1. Fedupsoutherner
      August 14, 2021

      I agree Tad. My son did a mockery mouse degree and sells conservatory roofs. My son in law didn’t go to uni but has two successful businesses and earns a good living.

  31. acorn
    August 14, 2021

    “Headteachers in England are calling for examination boards to refund half of the fees charged for A-level and GCSE entries this summer, arguing that schools are doing the bulk of the work to decide this year’s grades following the decision to scrap exams. The Worthless? campaign group of headteachers said it wanted the examination boards to give back 50% or more of the fees for the summer exam series, estimated to total more than £220m, with the money needed to plug holes in school budgets caused by Covid-19.”

    The oligopoly that are the three main exam boards, have more pricing power than OPEC. “Each A-level and BTec entry costs about £60, while GCSE entries cost £30 to £40 each. A pupil entered for nine or 10 GCSEs can cost a school well over £300. A school with a sixth form is likely to spend more than £100,000 a year on exam entries. […] But representatives of the exam boards say they have incurred substantial costs this year despite not having to print and mark millions of papers.” (Richard Adams Education editor, Guardian.)

  32. bigneil - newer comp
    August 14, 2021

    I read of British accents being heard amongst the Taliban in Afghanistan already – -seems anyone from anywhere can come and go as they please at UK borders. Will these Taliban fighters be welcomed back into the UK? – of course they will. No reason to exclude them – they’ll just do what they do if they are – a terrorist attack on the UK public – the ones whose taxes pay for their lives here, courtesy of our govt.

  33. John Hatfield
    August 14, 2021

    To calibrate the difficulty of papers, all the Exam Boards and teaching profession have to do is refer back to previous books of GCE exam papers which I’m sure still exist.

    1. John Hatfield
      August 14, 2021

      amendment – books of previous GCE exam papers

  34. Andy
    August 14, 2021

    It has been some years since I did my GCSEs, A levels and degree. What really annoyed me was older people – and it was all older people – complaining on TV, radio and in newspapers about how easy my exams were compared to theirs and how thick all young people were compared to them. It was arrogance in the extreme – and each year this moaning has got worse. Some of the contributors to this site are appalling culprits.

    Give the kids a break. Those doing their A levels this year have had the most disrupted education of any children since WW2. Next year’s kids have also had massively disrupted learning too. And the year after as well.

    Today’s young people may not have been able to pass the exams you took, but then you’d not be able to pass the exams they take. A simple example – most old people cannot type very well and are not great with computers. Why would they be? They never learned it. Kids can do it in their sleep – and they can programme computers too, which few older people can. They do not need the same skills you had because they are growing up in a different world to the one Baby Boomers did.

    I for one celebrate our amazing young people. They are a generation to be proud of. They will fix the climate crisis, the social care crisis, the economic crisis, the democratic crisis and the Brexit crisis created by the Baby Boomers. I look to their generation with hope and to the Baby Boomers with disdain. How could one generation have got it all so desperately, embarrassingly wrong?

    1. Mark
      August 14, 2021


      I think you are unaware of the abilities of “older people”. My parents were both good typists: typewriters have existed since the 19th century. In old age, as joint pains start to affect the elderly, they no longer type as fast as they did.

      As part of my standard maths courses at school I learned to programme a computer in several different languages, and hand punched programme cards to feed it: something I also did in my first few jobs, and which stood me in good stead when managing IT issues later on. As a hobby, I learned to programme in Assembler machine code. Very few of today’s children have anything like that degree of training. And now they use voice recognition instead of typing. How many of them can play a piano?

    2. Micky Taking
      August 14, 2021

      I was programming ‘machine coded’ first generation computers before you were born sonny-jim.
      A bit of respect wouldn’t go amiss. Kids these days can program because the various functions are already established. We had to organise a ‘word’ of 36 binary bits into 6 characters, then the words would be grouped into a block of 32 where the last one would be calculated to ensure correct bits. This would ensure you could read it back and be accurate. But that would also mean you had to write routines to move the tape deck forward or back and read/write that ‘block’ of data into a core-store with very simple functions.
      Even then the early computers were recording/calculating business for companies like Lyons, EMI, Thorn. etc
      If you had any idea you might have heard of English Electric, Marconi, Ferranti, ICT all before merged to form ICL. All this before you were born.

  35. mancunius
    August 14, 2021

    A letter in yesterday’s Telegraph from a university Professor of Aeronautics Engineering pointed out pithily that teachers’s pay is linked to the exam success of their pupils. The dots are easily joined up.

  36. Andy
    August 14, 2021

    You all forgot to congratulate EU countries on their world beating vaccine rollouts. The EU27 have just surpassed half a billion doses between them – with France surpassing 80m, Spain 60m, Germany closing in on 100m and Italy on 75m.

    Malta is the most vaccinated country in the world. Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Denmark & Ireland are all ahead of the UK on % of their populations who have had both first and second doses. Italy, the Netherlands, France, Hungary and Finland are all at the same sort of level as us but are mostly vaccinating faster.

    Only Bulgaria is not doing particularly well. We should congratulate our friends on their success.

    If the NHS vaccine rollout was your justification for Brexit then you just got beat by the EU. Oops.

    1. Micky Taking
      August 14, 2021

      But they didn’t stop the severe flooding, not the fires did they? – -shame on the EU.

    2. Peter2
      August 14, 2021

      Check the figures for double doses andy.

  37. glen cullen
    August 14, 2021

    A little rain and light breeze this afternoon
    I asked my known climate change activist neighbour
    ‘‘What do you think about today’s climate change weather’’
    He replied
    ‘’Its not climate change weather it sh1t weather’’
    I now have a little bit more respect for him

    1. Micky Taking
      August 14, 2021

      We had losts of sun and warm weather today – against forecast, but then it is August.
      Could be climate change?

  38. Ed M
    August 14, 2021

    The Afghan and Iraq Wars show just how inept our political leaders are here in the UK and the USA.

    That going into Afghanistan and Iraq was a terrible idea was a no brainer (I argued strongly against it at the time – it didn’t seem like rocket science – even though I am a strong supporter of war when we have to do it).

    And now we’re reaping the consequences. Years in Afghanistan for what? And now the Taliban storming towards Kabul and Iran looming large in the Middle East with no Iraq as a buffer (and the terrorism that spread into Syria).

  39. Lindsay McDougall
    August 15, 2021

    Probably the most important thing is to have fewer people taking degrees and more going into vocational training, possibly directly into employment with or without an apprenticeship. It cannot be right to persuade a student to incur a debt of £27000+ for a useless degree.
    A fair number of graduates do not earn enough to start paying back their student loans and taxpayers are picking up the tab. A Conservative Government should always be looking for ways of reducing taxation.

    1. Nota#
      August 15, 2021

      @Lindsay – correct, the taxpayers is the Governments private money tree.

      Good companies quite reasonably pay off student debts, maybe there should also be a relationship on were a student goes to work and the pay back also. My son did engineering at Warwick the company he went to paid everything to get him to work for them. Logic, good degrees are not paid for by good students so its insulting that taxpayers has t pay out for the wobbly no hope ones.

      To me the big problem is Universities especially the new Universities are just cash trawling businesses, they have no interest in the degree or the student they just follow the money.

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