Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A levels

There is no doubt that more pupils pass more A levels than they used to and more pupils get higher grades. The Government insists this is indicative of an increase in standards, whereas everyone else says its due to A levels getting easier. One of the reasons the Government insists on flying in the face of widespread opinion is that they have pumped a lot of cash into the state system in the last 10 years or so. They need to be able to point to a measurable improvement of some sort to avoid the charge of having wasted all that money.

The latest reported figures show that 30.3% of fee-paying pupils gained three or more A grades compared to 7.6% in comprehensives. Ten years ago the figures were 16.9% in independent schools against 4.7% in comprehensives. The telling point is not so much that there is a gap but that it has widened and widened considerably. Furthermore these figures don't reflect other research that suggests that the "harder", more rigorous subjects, which are more widely taken by independent school pupils, are also marked more harshly, that is if one adjusted for this then the relative performance in the independent sector is even better than the headline number indicates.

So how can this have happened? Perhaps the independent sector has increased their budgets even more quickly than has the state sector. Actually, no; since around 1998/99 the Government has been increasing "school based expenditure" by up to 7% a year. This figure excludes the costs of various centrally provided services eg school buses, the costs of local authority admin and particularly the costs of financing capital expenditure, thus the true increase is likely to be higher. In parallel private school fees have also been increasing, for example fees rose by 43% in the five years to 2006 which is an average yearly increase of 7.7%. When one bears in mind that private school fees necessarily include an element that is used to finance capital expenditure, the lesson is not the bare numbers themselves, but that increases in the private sector are roughly the same as in the state sector. In other words the independent sector is investing at broadly the same rate as the state sector. Given that the independent sector started from a much higher base (in terms of A level results), they ought to be into diminishing returns, but instead the opposite is happening. So the widening gap in performance can't be down to greater increases in funding in one sector.

Perhaps the gap is about the absolute level of funding, not just the relative increases in the past few years. Here one has to admit that independent schools have at least twice as much money as do state schools, but this factor is pretty much stable given that both sectors have been increasing funding at roughly the same rate. Again the killer fact is that the independent sector is increasing funding from a much higher base, yet it seems to be the state sector that is suffering from diminishing returns, not the higher spending independent sector.

Perhaps its not so much down to money, but general Government policy ie policy other than budget increases - curriculum changes etc. Here there are broadly 2 options, the independent sector either implements Government policy, or it does not. If you assume that across the board the independent sector has implemented every Government policy and initiative that the state sector has, then you'd have to say that the independent sector has done a better job. But who actually thinks that the independent sector implements Government policy? The harsher truth is that the independent sector is accelerating away from the state sector partly because it is not implementing Government policy. Or put another way, Government policy is holding back state schools.

What else could it be? You often hear the Government saying that pupils and teachers are working harder nowadays, hence the improvement in results. Is this the case? Was everyone over 30 lazy when they were at school? Again, if this is the cause of better results, or even contributory, then the conclusion must be that fee paying pupils are working even harder than their state educated peers. Working harder as well as doing more sport, playing more music, performing more drama etc.

The uncomfortable truth is that whatever the Government has done in state schools, the independent sector has either done it better or recognised it as detrimental and avoided doing it all. All the additional money that has been pumped into the state sector has either been wasted or any benefit it might have had has been nullified by policy.

Finally, does this say anything about the A level itself? In an absolute sense things have clearly moved forwards, but in a relative sense the state sector is actually going backwards. Concentrating on the absolute measure is misleading as it is the relative measure that is the better one as it removes any effect of "goal post shifting" - if the posts have moved at all, they've moved equally for both sectors, so by comparing the 2 we remove the effect. The trouble now is that by one measure things are improving, but by the truer measure things are actually getting worse. If the goal posts have not moved, then worsening education ought to show a drop in achievement, but we don't observe this. Thus achievement must be being inflated, and the means by which this is done is to make A levels easier.

This in itself only explains the contradiction, it doesn't explain why the independent sector shows the greater improvement. The reason for this can only be that the independent sector is better able to take advantage of the easier exams. The important, but ironic, conclusion we draw from that is that if you want to close the gap between state and independent sector, you need to make A levels harder!


  1. I think that the shift is fundamentally due to a shift that took place a long time ago. O-level and A-level [ver01] were to create an academic elite. GCSEs and the present A-level system is for a wider proportion of the population - therefore standards have to be lower.

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