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100% of A-level teachers think rise in A grades NOT down to more able students, survey reveals

Senior A-level teachers speak out on why today's A-level grades are rising

As the number of A grades achieved is set to rise again when results are released later this week, a report from independent think-tank Civitas, Straight A's?, based on a nationwide survey of 150 randomly selected senior A-level teachers, reveals that:

  • 0% of A-level teachers surveyed think that the increase in A grades is down to more able students
  • Only 4% think better quality teachers are the main reason for an increase in A grades at A-level

Instead, the findings show that 80% of teachers who expressed a view think they themselves would have achieved higher overall grades had they taken today's A-levels - and just 16% think they would have achieved the same set of A-level grades.

'That such a small proportion of teachers think they would have got the same overall A-level grades within today's modular system as they did under the linear system strongly suggests that the A-level results of today are not comparable with those of the past. That the majority of teachers think they would have achieved higher grades today strongly suggests that it is easier to do well today,' commented Anastasia de Waal, Director of Family and Education at Civitas and author of the report.

The general consensus is that the system today allows the same calibre of students to achieve higher grades. Teachers were either baldly negative in their assessment of this situation or more euphemistic:

'It's total nonsense that things have improved.' Head of Sixth Form, South East

'The A-level is not aimed at the same people as it was 30 years ago: a larger cohort must have easier exams or too many would fail. You could train a monkey to do the questions today!' Director of A-levels, North West

'I think the A-level is possibly more accessible today.' Head of Sixth Form, North West

'A-levels have been opened up to more people.'Head of Sixth Form, West Midlands

Whether teachers feel frustrated or consider arrangements to be 'fairer', success is seen to be more achievable today.

'The system is an absolute shambles, the standard of candidates is very low - it's a national disgrace.' Head of Sixth Form, East Midlands

'There's a better chance to reach what students need to succeed.' Director of A-levels, South West

Even the comments of those defending the current A-levels were revealing:

'The style of learning is very different - but that's not the same as them being easier. The modular system is the most effective way to get more people into university, it makes university much more accessible.' Director of A-levels, North West

Specifically, the majority of teachers surveyed regard the increase in top grades to be down to students knowing more about what will be examined:

  • 43% think that the main reason for more top A-level grades is that students are more informed about what's in the exam
  • 8% think the main reason is that the syllabus is more closely linked to the exams

'Very explicit guidance is given to students about what will be in the exams.' Head of A-levels, East Anglia

'There is a lot of information from examiners today. It's easier to get an A than ten years ago.' Director of A-levels, West Midlands

Generally the exams are seen to be the focal point of A-levels today. A number of teachers commented on the irony of the fact that whenever they went 'off course' (literally) in discussion around their subject, they were 'reprimanded' by students; very different, commented one head of sixth form, from the days of deliberate attempts to distract the teacher.

Re-sits rife

'It's the chance to re-take - I'm very sure that this is the key to success today.' Head of Sixth Form, South East

Teachers' views that they would get higher grades in today's A-levels are strongly supported by their estimates of the impact re-sitting has had on their students' grades:

  • 71% of teachers who expressed a view estimated that 50% or more of their last year's A-level students did at least one re-sit
  • 69% of teachers who expressed a view estimated that 50% or more of those students who re-sat achieved a higher overall A-level grade as a result

While re-sits impact positively on results, there is concern about their impact on learning:

'It's not good from the point of education, it's repeating ad nauseam.' Head of Sixth Form, London

'There is a real problem with re-sits and the re-sit culture - I would abolish them. Students are revising for re-sits when they should be focusing on the current course.' Head of Sixth Form, Yorkshire and the Humber

Are A-levels becoming defunct?

'Teachers and students are understandably riled by the annual criticism of A-levels, but the point is not that students and teachers aren't working - it's that the system isn't,' commented Anastasia de Waal.

As one head of sixth form commented:

'It's unfortunate because it's not students' faults - they can only do what they're given. The media hype is unfair on students working their guts out.' Head of Sixth Form, London, North West

A key concern is that results are not regarded as reflecting students' ability today.

'The problem is distinguishing between the good and the hard working students - i.e. the diligent and the super clever.' Director of A-levels, North West

'I would love to see exams where they gauge a true reflection of students' abilities rather than their preparation for the exams.' Head of A-levels, South West

The A-level has become a means to an end - about grades for university, not knowledge and understanding. The irony is that universities are now rejecting A-level results as reliable indicators. A-levels are therefore running the risk of becoming defunct.


The shift from the linear system's one set of 'sudden death' exams, to 'spreading the load' modular exams is in principle welcome. The merit of the modular A-level is that it allows students to convey their knowledge and understanding of the course, rather than their ability to perform in an exam. The problem, however, is that today the entire course has become centred on exam performance, to the detriment of learning.

  • Scrap re-sits: The best way to end the current pressure, devaluation and teaching to the exam at A-level is to scrap re-sits. Other than narrowing the course to revision, the re-sits are lining the pockets of the exam boards. Moreover the cost of re-sits for students may mean that schools with a more affluent intake do more re-sits and therefore get better results.
  • End perverse interests for exam boards: Examining boards should not set the syllabus and the exams. It should not be in the interests of those setting the syllabus to ensure that students achieve high grades in the exam. A-level exams for a variety of syllabuses should therefore be set by a single independent body. What is to be avoided are syllabuses and exams designed to maximise exam grades rather than learning. By having one independent body set the exams there would be no interest in facilitating performance, on the contrary, there would be an interest in ensuring consistency and comparability. Exam boards are commercial bodies which earn income from exam fees. By making exams more 'accessible', providers can attract more providers to sign up for their exams; the more demanding boards, in turn, risk losing 'market share'. A ruling party's wish to claim credit for improving exam performance provides a perverse incentive to co-operate with the lowering of standards by stealth. The remedy is a single exam-setting body, insulated from political pressure, with a legally enforceable duty to maintain an agreed standard over time.

For more information contact Anastasia de Waal: 020 7799 6677 / 07930 354 234

Notes for Editors

i. Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas's education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.

ii. The report, Straight A's? A-level teachers' views on today's A-levels by Anastasia de Waal is available here.

iii. Details of survey:

  • Senior A-level teachers denotes heads of sixth form and equivalent in further education and sixth form colleges
  • 150 heads of sixth form or equivalent surveyed, from a randomly selected sample of providers, between 29th June and 24th July 2009
  • 73% of teachers surveyed have taught for 10 years or more
  • Providers surveyed cover the following regions: East Anglia (18), East Midlands (20), London (16), North (Yorkshire and the Humber) (7), North East (10), North West (24), South East (17), South West (22), West Midlands (16)

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