First among equals?

Hilary Moriarty asks, what part have schools played in the possible devaluing of the first-class degree?

OK, I begin with a declaration of interest: I do not have a first-class degree. Maybe that’s why the latest news about the reckless abandon with which first-class degrees are being awarded like Smarties (how apt!) to today’s graduates makes my blood boil. Up to 1980, fewer than 5% of students could expect to earn a first, and they were likely to be really outstanding students. By the early 1990s, firsts accounted for 10% of degrees. Today, one in four degrees is a first.

In that number, there will, of course, be the modern version of the original very bright students who richly deserved their gilded degrees, but sheer logic says they must be rubbing shoulders with far more ordinary folk, whose firsts were, frankly, surprising. They must bear witness to radical change in education. We seem to have moved from a collective belief that some people were actually more academic than others – knew more, swotted harder and relished advanced study – while the rest of us wanted a social life as well. Dammit, they were simply cleverer than the rest of us, and it showed. They got the highest grades, they went on to do PhDs, while the rest of us were happy enough with a 2:2 and very pleased with a 2:1.

I have begun to wonder how much schools are responsible for a state of affairs where, virtually, all shall have prizes of the highest order. OK, not all but heck, 25% of students getting a first? At the University of Surrey last year 50% of students were awarded firsts. And there’s more; The Times said that last year, “2:2 and third-class degrees were becoming a rarity and were awarded to fewer than 10% of students at several universities, including Bristol, Durham and University College London.”

Between us we have raised a generation of students who expect to get A* grades in all subjects.  Liking a subject is immaterial. What matters is the grade and a good teacher can make sure you get that

Almost 20% of students with A-levels of CCD graduated with a first. Late developers, no doubt. Honestly, if they are a student of yours and they come back in three years to say, “Look, I got a first,” might you think something has gone wrong with the system?

Yikes. All of this horrifies me. It’s like watching currency devaluing while you still hold a couple of fivers. We will surely reach a position in which only a first will do, and devil take the rest of us with our second-class degrees, or even – heaven help us – lowly thirds, quietly bleating, “But look at the date, I got this when an upper second was a real achievement, honestly.”

Rise of the all-rounder

Why do I think schools have played a part in this gross inflation? I offer a parable. Some years ago, a parent asked what subjects would be best for his daughter to take at A-level. 

I asked where her talents and interests lay. 

He said she was good at all her GCSE subjects, as proved by her results, which were straight As (in pre A* days). She did not have a particular interest in any subject and she did not think there was any level of difficulty in any of them that she would not be able to manage at A-level. It boiled down to her not actually knowing what she was good at or interested in. Great teaching and close attention to exam requirements had convinced her she was excellent at everything.

It struck me – and the dad in question when we talked further – that he and I were of a generation who did not expect to be all-rounders. We liked some subjects, and the likes and dislikes were reflected in our own GCE grades. Those grades almost pointed the way for the next two years of A-level study, regardless of what teachers might advise. 

In our respective O-level classes, very, very few students were actually good at everything. In my grammar school, I could name three such students, two of whom went on to get first-class degrees, in maths and physics respectively. 

The girl who went on to do a degree in Latin scored a 2:1, with many mutterings about how an arts degree was more subjective and therefore posed more of a ‘2:1 risk’.

Hiliary Moriarty thinks that between us, we have raised a generation of students who expect to get A* grades in all subjects

Between us we have raised a generation of students who expect to get A* grades in all subjects. Liking a subject is immaterial. What matters is the grade and a good teacher can make sure you get that. There seems to be an army of helpers, including the exam boards themselves, conspiring to enable all students to get the highest grades in all subjects, a feat which my generation simply did not expect.

When the exam boards publish guides on how to pass the exams, and teachers are assessed on the success of their students, possibly sacrificing wide-ranging teaching to strict adherence to the limited demands of a particular board’s requirements, with practice papers and meetings with the board to find out exactly what they are after, students and parents begin to believe the highest grade is achievable in every subject. Simples. I have heard one chemist declare, “I don’t teach GCSE chemistry, I teach the GCSE chemistry required by one exam board. Don’t confuse them.”

But if you can get a full hand of top grades in all subjects, regardless of whether you have any natural aptitude, dare I say love of, any of them, then you will surely expect also to get the top grade – a first – in your degree exams. And if lots of the high A-level and GCSE grades are a product of virtually intensive exam-focused teaching, then some of that at university might raise a grade, might it not?

I do not recall being actually taught at university. There were half-a-dozen lectures a week, bearing no apparent connection to the exams at the end of the year. The rest of your time was your own, and with a subject like English, that translated into a lot of reading, with your fingers crossed for the exams, which might ask you anything. The ‘system’ was all about studying as an active occupation, rather than being taught, which appears to be important now.

You might also like: Measuring value by degrees

Listening to my daughter speak of classes in her degree course in English is salutary. In her class, students would ask at the start of a lecture on a particular text, “Is this one on the exam paper?” If yes, they paid attention; if no, they just left. The book itself, or the writer or the subject, were of no intrinsic interest to the class. Lectures were exam focused, there to help you get the final grade.

My lecturers were a distant bunch. Now it feels as if some kind of baton has been passed to lecturers as to teachers: they will be rated on their teaching and on their students’ results. Are all those first-class degrees actually a product of a cheerful conspiracy operating to everyone’s benefit?

The Office for Students recently reported that ‘spiralling grade inflation’ risked undermining public confidence. It begs the question, when is a first not a first, to which the sad answer might be, if you got it this year.

PS. There were 26 students in my Honours English Language and Literature course at Trinity College Dublin, 1970. Results were posted in rank order. There were three firsts. I was fourth

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


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