Making the grade

The A grade – once a very real currency – has been devalued, Hilary Moriarty argues

In my distant youth, an A grade at A-level was a rare beast, most often seen in maths and science subjects. It seemed to me even then that maths and science A-levels tested what you knew, whereas subjects like English lit and history tested what you thought. Dangerous territory, thinking. And what power do examiners have to halt your career – your life – if they happened to think differently and simply declare you wrong?

In my case, chasing the much-desired A grade took three years. After two years, I scored a B for English lit. Young in my year, I was able to stay for a third year in the sixth form and retake. Happily, the second time around, my E grades in history and Latin went up to Cs and for English lit I got the A I needed, enhanced with a distinction for what was then called a scholarship paper. Sorted.

It struck me as deeply ironic that in an interview with senior staff at Trinity College Dublin I was told I had only won the place because I had a C in Latin. “That will be useful when you do Anglo Saxon and Middle English,” said the professor. How right she was. Mine was what I now think of as a ‘real’ degree in English language and literature, a rare thing even then.

But I did feel covered against accusations of ‘Huh – easy peasy – nothing like exams in maths,’ and to some extent the rigour of the language, whether Anglo Saxon or modern, was a defence against the presumption you were reading English because you really weren’t very bright. The memory runs deep.

Many years later, when A grades at both GCSE and A-level had become commonplace and I was a headmistress, I took a call from an anxious parent: his daughter had no idea what to study for A-level.

“Well, what were her GCSE grades like?”

“That’s the problem,” said the parent. “She got straight As.”

“And this is a problem?”

“Well yes, because she doesn’t know which to choose – she enjoys all her GCSE subjects; which one will get her the A grades she needs for university entrance?”

“What does she like?”

“All of them! She just wants to know which will get her straight As. It’s got to be maths and physics, really, hasn’t it? You know where you are with numbers – it’s right or wrong, isn’t it?”

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If this young lady could do maths and physics without having a nervous breakdown, they would be great career choices, and, as I recall, that’s what she did, plus French because she saw that as expanding her world. And perhaps Dad was right to be wary of subjects where answers might be, well, for want of a better word, subjective. One of the relics of my teaching past is a volume two inches thick containing a copy of every Ordinary Level exam paper set by the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations in autumn 1975. How geeky is that?

I know, it’s a lifetime ago and it is only O-level, and it is only one board, but it offers me proof that ‘fings were different’ then. The exams were harder. Simple as that. No matter how good the teaching, there was real onus on the candidates to keep up, to understand in the first place and recall in exam conditions in the second.

These papers are ‘no quarter given’ – the candidate is an independent student, with no lexicon of right or wrong answers to questions like, “What did Chaucer hope to achieve by telling the story of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale?” Good question – now, I suspect, conducive to wails of “How am I supposed to know that?”

My book of exam papers brings the past into focus. Here are the questions, like those my students faced, that dictated what and how I taught, with my fingers perpetually crossed that the students would understand the questions, delve into all they knew and chance their arm when asked – literally – “What do you think?” Which is a whole different matter when the topic is, say, reasons for a war, from when you are asked the end result of a complicated puzzle of addition and multiplication using x and y as often as numbers.

In maths, you know, or you don’t. You can, so to speak, count on it. In English lit, you think. And the examiner may not like how or what you think. Pouf! My O-level exam book offers the candidate 32 lines of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, then cheerfully asks the candidate to “Bring out the humour that results from the mixing of human and animal characteristics in this description.”

What? Bring out the humour? I mean, really, what can you possibly want, and how will you judge the response as good, bad or indifferent, from youngsters aged 15/16? Another question in the same paper: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Consider whether this is the ‘moral’ of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Consider? What kind of instruction is that for the poor candidate?

Sadly, it feels as if A-levels are turning into academic driving tests, with an expectation that everyone can pass because they need to

Pity the poor examiner – and I was one for several years at O, A and CSE and GCSE levels – holding a script alongside a marking scheme and trying to come to a fair judgement on a candidate’s performance in language and literature. Give me 2+2 questions for judgement any day. If you can do the sums then, to coin a phrase, you can do the sums.

Candidates in maths and English lit must surely be using very different parts of their brains. The trouble is that the system must be fair to all candidates. It ought not to be easier to get an A in maths than it is in English – it just is, provided you can do the maths. But we can give other subjects access to those magic ticks that say, “Correct!” All you have to do is make questions more specific and – er, sometimes simple.

I have seen an English class where A-levellers were being reminded of specific vocabulary to use in a first paragraph of an answer, knowing that each reference would be a) expected by the examiner and b) rewarded with a mark. Not to be challenged in a re-mark. Safe from difference of opinion.

Sadly, it feels as if A-levels are turning into academic driving tests, with an expectation that everyone can pass because they need to. Now, everyone needs to go to university, so make it possible – better jobs, more money, better self-esteem, happy all round.

Are they brighter than their parents? Er, not necessarily. But they appear to be so much brighter that they need a new alphabet to cope with their wonderfulness. An A is no longer enough; even A* is getting commonplace. So, let’s have a new one – A** or A++**. Or an A* with distinction.

In fact, never mind how we do the grading, could we just have some really hard questions back please? And make the A – or A* or A** – mean what it says on the tin.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.

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