Friday, 22 April 2011

Dumber Britain

Is the population in Great Britain getting dumber?

If you were to look at the statistics the answer would be a resounding no.  However, I have never been a fan of statistics because they tend to be without context and, most importantly, statistics can be manipulated to suit whatever purpose is required.

It has also been argued that students have been opting for the easier subjects; media studies has come under fire as being too easy and the students being handed the exam paper some four weeks or so before the actual exam.  There are claims on both sides of the camp and the argument is bound to continue for years as the pass rate for GCSEs and A levels increase.

Some well established organisations have argued that students are opting for the easier subjects in order to increase their chances of getting A grades.  This not only makes the student a more attractive asset to employers and universities, but increases the ranking of the school or college they attended.  All in all it is good for both the student and the establishment.

Prince Charles, never one to hide his opinion, has also voiced his concern about the lack of interest in serious subjects such as English Literature and History.  In fact, there was concern about the literacy rate in the UK, although more students were completing higher education, the literacy rate was dropping.  The core subjects, English, Maths, History and Sciences have been left behind by newer, more attainable subjects, including Media Studies. 

British Universities are also finding it harder to distinguish between the the top percentile of student applications as the number of young people attaining high grades in A levels has increased.  In the past, only 10% of A grades were awarded making it easier for Universities to select the more intelligent students however, recently this figure has raised to 20%.  Criticism continues although the UK has risen in the international rankings for graduates completing higher education.

However, having been an instructor, I have seen the low literacy and numeracy ability of students who have numerous GCSEs, A levels, degrees and even PhDs!  As a result, we have had to spend precious time teaching them to read, write and do basic mathematics when we should have been teaching them other subjects.  On that basis alone, I would question the level of difficulty of the current level 2 and 3 qualifications.

Some years ago, a study was carried out using young volunteers who had each achieved a minimum of five A star passes in their GCSE exams.  They were asked to sit the old 'O' level exams in English and Maths.  Unsurprisingly, they all did badly, with the majority failing outright and not one achieving the highest grade attainable.  One distinction that was identified during this experiment was that if you got an answer wrong in an 'O' level exam you were not awarded any points.  In the current GCSE you are awarded points for trying to answer the question.  One student even remarked that you could get points for writing "f*** off", the GCSE allowing points for expressing yourself.

The 'O' level was abandoned in 1984 when the, then, Education Secretary, Keith Joseph, tried to close the divide created by the 'O' level and the CSEs (the Certificate of Secondary Education).  Back then, children were in primary school until the age of 11 and then they moved to secondary school, going through years 1 to 5.  On the 5th year they sat their exams.  The 'O' level was considered to be for the bright student and the CSE for 'the thick ones'.  The GCSE was designed to remove the divide between the 'elitist' and those with other skills.

"Under the old 'O' Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate's performance relatively against those of competing candidates.  The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill.  Despite concerns about the exams getting easier and of girls outdoing boys, the government is committed to retaining the system." the BBC article about the issue stated in June 2005.

There are many teachers and professors that mourn the loss of the 'O' level but Keith Joseph argued that the GCSE will be more intelligible to users.  A vague argument for what, to me, appears to be a very flexible exam if you can be awarded points for just expressing yourself.  Having sat and passed a number of 'O' levels, I feel cheated when compared to someone who has passed 10 GCSEs and then claims that the exams I took were easy in comparison.

That notwithstanding, the UK continues to have a continual growth in the number of students getting numerous high grades on their exams.  Anthony O'Hear, a philosopher and government adviser has stated that there has been a "rampant grade inflation" and others stating that the teachers have either become much better at teaching or the students have become much brighter.  Each year the number of students with a staggering amount of A star grades increase.  Does this not dilute the standing of the qualification?

It is obvious that I am biased on the subject.  I will always believe that the 'O' level was much harder to attain than the GCSE.  Having taught students who failed basic literary and numeracy test, I believe that the introduction of the internet, spell checkers and calculators have all had an adverse affect on the core abilities of the current generation.  However, the statistics will prove me wrong and the UK will continue to rise in the academic league.  However, in the long term I believe that the future leaders of industry, science and education will not be as creative, inventive or as daring as their predecessors.  The continued improvement in computing will probably negate this shortfall, as computers get faster and more able to do more complex tasks, mankind will continue to evolve.  But will our basic intelligence evolve as well? 

I saw a film, a comedy, where an average person was thrown into the future, a future where everyone was stupid, relying on technology.  The main character in the story was considered a genius because he could see the obvious.  Is this a possible future?  Not very likely, but I think someone should consider a revision of our current educational system. Surely some changes, especially to literacy and numeracy would only be a good thing?

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