Friday, September 7, 2007

Dumbing Down Is Not The Way

I've just come across this disturbing blog post over at Amused Cynicism:

So, there you have it. Exams must be made easier, so that thick kids can
have a “positive experience”. We can’t shatter the fragile egos of the poor
dears, now can we? It’s Alice in fucking Wonderland, where all have won, and all
must have prizes.

At this point you may be thinking, “hang on, maybe the existing exams
are very hard, and making them easier is the right thing to do.” Well, you’d be

The rest of the post highlights a GCSE Physics paper from earlier this year, giving three questions where absolutely no knowledge of physics was required at all to get the question right. Indeed, one of the questions isn't even remotely scientific - it's just a question of having a little bit of common sense. One other question is at least mathematical; the other deals with the scientific method - although it is comical to suggest that they are particularly stretching questions.

This reflects a worrying trend in education, though. 'Inclusivity' is the buzzword, either that or 'access' - both of which have, at heart, a laudable aim. We should want great educational achievements from as many people as possible. The problem is that knowledge isn't a relative quality, it's an absolute one.

But the problem in Britain is that value attaches itself to the level of education, rather than the quality achieved at that level. Our universities have historically been the envy of much of the rest of the world. It was not for nothing that the A-Level used to be known as the 'gold standard'. Yet while the names attached to the level of education hasn't changed, the standard has - and seemingly quite markedly. The desire for 'participation', though, means that in the minds of some it is wrong to close off avenues in education. Even when their academic attainment simply isn't sufficient to justify their presence at a certain level.

The article I've linked to rightly criticises the assumption that the response to some children doing badly in exams should be to make the exams easier. The problem is that it's an attitude that pervades the educational establishment. The ironically named Qualifications Assurance Agency once carried out a study into the high drop-out rate for an engineering course at Paisley University. Its recommendations? That the course be made more suitable for the educational background of the students - a coded reference, of course, to making the course easier. Quite what assurance the QAA provides, I really don't know.

Now, the fact that people still want to continue learning is a wonderful thing, and something that should be encouraged. But it shouldn't be encouraged at any price. And it certainly shouldn't be encouraged at the price of academic standards for existing qualifications. Ultimately, there needs to be some recognised standard against which people can be judged. What I'm calling for, essentially, is a rethink of the structure of our education system. It's taking too much strain - we are trying to make degree courses represent all kind of differing levels of achievement, but shoehorning them into the same results classifications.

There's nothing to be gained by taking different forms of education and trying to compare them to each other. The facts are simple - we need to diversify our education system, so that people can learn at the level, and learn the skills, that are most important to them. And classify them as such, rather than trying to pretend that a vocational A-Level in tourism can be summed up in an equivalent grade to an academic A-Level in maths.

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