Closing students’ minds
The news that A-level grades have risen yet again comes as no surprise to teachers like me. We’ve become much better at teaching to the tests, and pupils are much more proficient at passing them. But does this mean that our students are genuinely becoming cleverer?
Worryingly, I think not. My experience suggests that precisely the opposite is happening. When I think back to when I first started teaching A-level 15 years ago, I realise that my lessons were a great deal more creative and exploratory and, as a result, fostered more intelligent, original and crafted responses.
For example, I can remember teaching Jane Austen’s Emma to a class of sixth-formers at that time. Because the rubric of the A-level was much less prescriptive, I was able to ask students to write stories and film scripts in response to the text, we were able to read other works by Austen, and there was room for open-ended discussion about her techniques and themes. The emphasis was upon "exploration" rather than teaching to the exam.
How different it was teaching the same text a few years ago! Anxious to gain good marks, my students took a modular A-level exam on the text in January. Unfortunately, too many of my lessons were redolent of how I used to teach the text – there was far too much discussion and exploration and not enough exam practice. Quite a few of the students were quite angry with my teaching style because they didn’t do too well. Most of the class decided to re-sit the module in the summer. From that point onwards, my lessons consisted solely of exam practice, training pupils to answer the question. Of course, my results were far better, with half the class gaining A grades. I taught the students to make the points that would meet the "assessment objectives", rather than trying to shape an original argument for themselves. This objective-driven approach now characterises all A-level teaching because it is how all the exams are graded. But I could clearly see that it was closing my students’ minds, exhorting them to produce "gobbets" of information and failing to persuade them to shape individual arguments.
But this is now how all of us teach in the English system. It’s actually meant that many undergraduates now struggle to construct clear arguments. A couple of years ago, a detailed study (pdf) carried out by the Royal Literary Fund revealed the true state of students’ writing skills. Even students studying English at elite universities struggled to write basic English sentences and frequently composed "muddled and clumsily expressed essays". The report shows quite clearly that standards have declined considerably.
In my quest for good exam grades I encourage pupils to slap down the material that will enable them to meet the assessment objective rather than painstakingly help them craft essays – like I used to. Since teachers are now judged solely on results by their students, parents and line managers, and their pay is dependent upon this, they would be foolish to teach like they used to. The net result is that exam grades have risen, but standards have declined.
About this articleClose Francis Gilbert: Results might be up, but A-level standards have declined
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Thursday August 14 2008.