Exam fever breaks from today

Stand by for the usual tears of joy and gloom as well as the charges of dumbing down that will greet today’s A level results. GCSE results follow next week. The local papers are braced to write the usual “Northern Ireland tops the league” stories while tastefully ignoring for the moment the broad ranks of our “Neets,” the young people not currently engaged in employment, education and training.” Update And sure enough, after the results came out at 9 a.m. the stories got written.
For many who haven’t yet won provisonal uni places the nightmare of clearing begins. The Times of all the papers probably offers the best support. But away from all the emotions of the hour, long overdue change in the controversial system is about to happen. Will it be enough?Are A levels dumbing down? If not, why are they not feeding the skills shortage better with tough subjects like maths? If so, why are kids feeling more and more pressure? Why is the education gap widening between richer and poorer kids? Will the creation of a formal A star level and the introduction of a 5,000 word dissertation increase confidence in the exam? Education Guardian sets out the issues. The Independent sets out what’s gone wrong, the obsession with targets that has swamped the system.
Adds. I agree with much of this overview from Mary Riddell I’ve just read in the Daily Telegraph, although I wouldn’t dump testing altogether.

A new diploma of qualifications designed to raise standards and strike a better balance between academic and vocational learning is being introduced in England. Why not in Northern Ireland? While congratulating kids for all their hard work and wishing them well etc., let’s widen the debate beyond the usual complacency from the grammar schools. And we will return later to their Achilles heel – academic selection at 11.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that in the Republic, there are concerns that the system there too isn’t delivering all the skills needed to revive the Tiger’s roar.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Uuuh well i fink as a young person

    we have 2 work just as hard as the ppl b4 us and like i dont fink a levels r being fumbed down

  • Essentialist

    Academic selection is no Achilles heel.

    If you believe otherwise please explain how in 2006:

    Total A-levels taken Number of Agrades

    Comprehensive 313,570 56,146
    Grammar schools 72,263 25,599

    So when ‘softer’ subjects are included, pupils educated in 164 grammar schools in England produce just over a third of the A grades achieved by pupils in around 2,700 comprehensive schools.

    164 grammar schools are producing more than half the total number of A grade A-levels produced by around 2,700 comprehensive schools. Being selective, grammar schools should do well. But they only exist in a third of the country.

    Lacking competition from within the state sector, what are schools in the other two thirds doing? Despite their magnificent performance, the grammar schools are being undermined and indirectly threatened with extinction by all major political parties. The CBI don’t believe that standards have improved.

    It is only educationalists and ill-informed politicans and lazy journalists who push out exam board propaganda that are convinced that students and teaching have improved. The reality is that standards have been reduced or in many instances made immeasurable. Unless you believe in the alternative theory that pupils have increased in intelligence(s)

    Enjoy today for what it is. An annual circus performance put on by the media and the willing performing chimps. Roll up Roll up.

    Prizes for everyone.

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    I like it best when one of Northern Ireland’s more Kent Brockman style reporters, Jeanie Johnston, UTV, laughs at the boys because they have been outperformed by the girls. (Her smug editorialising, when not brandishing her sympathies for a hardline brand of unionism, suggests that boys doing badly is a source of humour rather than concern.)

  • Essentialist


    You raise the distinction between “academic” and “vocational” subjects. The Northern Ireland Department of Education or CCEA have never produced such a list. When asked by an MP to do so in a 2004 PQ they claimed no decisions had been made but instead they introduced the terms “general” and “applied” for subjects into the Education Order again without defining the terms. The change in terms was,no doubt, to avoid further difficult questions.

    David Burnside: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what the Department of Education’s definition and criteria are for classifying curriculum subjects as (a) vocational and (b) academic in secondary schools in Northern Ireland. [166714]

    Mr. Gardiner: No decisions have yet been taken on these issues, which will be considered in the context of the proposed Entitlement Framework.

    Tell slugger what do you understand the terms to mean?

  • Driftwood

    The words will, a la Lewis Carroll, mean whatever you want them to mean. meaning they are essentially meaningless. As is the annual farce and debate that will dominate the news ‘agenda’ tonight. They could just show last years media reports, or the previous years, and i’m willing to bet next years “news” will be the same
    Like deja vu all over again….

  • Essentialist


    Agreed. I am interested in Brian Walker’s motivation in highlighting the East/West incongruity.

    “A new diploma of qualifications designed to raise standards and strike a better balance between academic and vocational learning is being introduced in England. Why not in Northern Ireland? ”

    Does Brian not have a grasp of the fact that the entire curriculum has been shifted from subject based teaching to themes based constructivist activity and “skills” acquisition.

    I’m sure he’ll be right back with a reply.

  • Driftwood

    Well, the traditional subjects still dominate especially in the grammars. I think the switch to modular exams and AS and A2 repeatable modules, as well as the introduction of A* at GCE cannot help but enforce a sense of drift in these exams.

  • joeCanuck

    Is there any basis for the assertion by some that it is easier to get “A” Levels today than in was in my time 40 years ago.
    That would surprise me. Aren’t the Universities producing well educated professionals who can compete world wide?

  • Driftwood

    Aren’t the Universities producing well educated professionals who can compete world wide?

    Well Joe, no doubt the Universities of 40 years ago are still doing so. Perhaps not the ‘University of Central Dorset’ or the myriad of glorified tech schools issuing degrees in applied hairdressing and conflict studies.

    They all end up in the NI civil service

  • Driftwood

    Meant to add in the above the pathetic joke that is the “University” of Ulster.

  • Essentialist


    Add also the School of Conflict Resolution aka The School of Education at Queen’s University in Belfast

  • Essentialist

    Joe Canuck

    The age old question on examination rigour has been covered by the BBC


  • willis

    It boils down to the question

    “What is an examination system (particularly A levels) for?

    30 years ago the answer was easy. To enable the universities, much fewer then, to select for their courses that year. So the results were manipulated to provide a requisite number of top grades. In the late eighties this changed.


    That is when “dumbing down” began. It is not really dumbing down, and it began at the same time as Nigel Lawson removed the 60% tax band. Similar types of loosening of the stays.

  • willis

    Good to have you back Brian.

    I liked that bit in the article about the Leaving Cert.

    “More than 5,000 Leaving Cert students have failed ordinary and foundation-level maths, making many ineligible for third-level courses, as maths is a basic requirement.”

    Try doing that in the UK, although I guess the standard of Maths in the Leaving Cert may not be far from a GCSE A-C grade. If I’m wrong I will soon find out.

  • Essentialist

    The leading article in the Independent yesterday must serve as a classic ‘blame the tools not the workman’exercise


    “If universities and employers are disappointed by gaps in the knowledge or skills of their new recruits – and their loudest recent complaints have been about the mastery of basic reading, writing and maths – this should not be laid at the door of individual pupils or teachers. Rather, it reflects the limits of the testing and exam system. Criticism needs to be addressed to those who can do something about it: ministers and regulators, not those receiving their results today.” …. and certainly never the teachers.

    Frank Bunting, Northern Secretary of INTO said:

    The education of our children must come first. The possible introduction of entrance tests will have a very negative impact on the primary school curriculum. It will harm pupils and confuse parents. The Education Minister has already made proposals for a 3 year period of testing for those schools seeking a transitional route to new non academic selective arrangements which, at the very least merit discussion within the NI Executive. Opportunistically grafting onto these proposed CCEA designed tests additional entrance tests is a nonsensical step too far by the rebels.

    Frank’s mastery of basic reading and writing is questionable. Nevertheless it is good to note he endorses the Education Minister’s support for testing.

    I must make it clear as a parent that Frank Bunting the Minister for Education and company do not speak for me or my children.

    Dropping the use of the personal pronoun in their public statements would go a long way in debunking the use of personal views disguised as union party political or governmental policy.

  • joeCanuck


    Thanks for the link. Seems rather sad on the face of it but I suspect there’s more to it than meets the eye.

  • Driftwood

    Check out what you require to get a grade C in GCSE Mathematics across all the exam boards and you will be pretty shocked at what you find.