Exam Results

The GCSE and A Level results are out and unsurprisingly there was, once again, an increase in the exam results. More people passed, more people got As. This is the 27th year in a row of improvement for the grades.  What is going on?

The comments from the “students are better and smarter” camp include:

  • Schools minister Iain Wright said: ‘Critics who belittle better results and infer that the only way to measure a successful education system is by young people failing A-levels are insulting the hard work of students and teachers and the great support that parents give their children during these difficult qualifications.
  • Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said: “For all those critics who can’t bear the idea that the improvement in A-Level results is attributable to the hard work of young people and their teachers, they should have a look at the trend in improvement in the so called ‘hard’ subjects of mathematics and science”.

Comments on the BBC website include:

  • rather than being bitter, could you all let us celebrate for one day before the tirade of insults.”
  • People are missing the positives arising from so many students achieving the top grades at A-levels.”
  • Easier.. my foot!!! I know tonnes of people who didn’t do as well as they wanted today, me included.”
  • I have just received my A level results and I’m disgusted at the comments on [the BBC] site.Its quite rude to putting down the time and effort we have put into our work for 2 years.”

What is really going on?

Firstly, the plural of anecdotes is not data[1]. Just because a student does well, or not so well does not mean anything, from a statistics point of view. If a student feels they have worked hard and are deserving of an A, that does mean anything. The detractors, those in the “A Levels are Mickey Mouse” camp, are commenting not on a single question, or a single paper, but looking at the data as a whole.

The Facts and Figures

  • A level results have increased for 27 years
  • In 1982 the A level pass result was 68.2 %. In 2009 it is now 97.5%
  • In 1982 the A grade result, for A levels was 8.9%. In 2009 it is now 26.7%
  • A scientific study of 3,000 students aged 11 to 14 in 2009 showed no increase in mathematical ability.
  • A study at Durham University, based on 250,000 results found that on average students grades have increased by 2 marks for A-Levels in the past 20 years. That’s an A for what was a C.
  • A comparison of O Levels and GCSE papers has been conducted. The results were very clear. People getting ten A* in GCSE could not even finish an O Level maths paper.

In short the data shows that exam results have radically increases, but people are not getting smarter. Therefore there has to be grade inflation.


Below are some comments from those who believe there is grade inflation, this is not data, but anecdotes.

  • A poll, for think-tank Civitas, revealed that teachers believe the systems allow the same caliber of students to achieve higher grades.
  • Seven in 10 University tutors believe standards either stayed the same or deteriorated in recent years.
  • A director of A-levels from a school in the North West said: ‘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!’
  • A teacher stated “At GCSE you get marks for trying to do the question and showing your working out even if you don’t get the right answer,” she said. “You can even get marks for writing ‘F*** off’. You get marks for expressing yourself, for creativity, rather than for precision. I think the O-levels are harder than” GCSEs

Bad for Smart Students

27 years ago if you got an A you would be in the top 8.9% of the country, today you are in the top 26%. What this means is that if anybody is going to look at your results, as a form of assessing how smart you are then you are going to lumped be with a much wider, presumably less smart, group of people.  Here is a very simple example to illustrate this

1982 Example

In 1982  100 people in a school take A level maths, and the local company needs one student, with a very strong maths background, and therefore demands an A in A-Level maths. 9 students (rounded up) get an A in maths in the local school, so 9 get called in for interview and the employer can see which one suits the job best. Some will be better than others in maths, even within the top 9%, but that will be a relatively small difference.

2009 Example

The same scenario, but this time there are 27 people with A’s in Maths at A-Level (again the number has been rounded up). The company cannot interview 27 people, so there will be a cull of people based just on the CV. It could be based on sporting activities, hobbies, or any other arbitrary measure. It could be that the person going through the CV’s doesn’t like the font an applicant used, or their name, whatever it is its not going to be based on grades as its not possible to spot the top tier of people through grades anymore. As 27% of people now have an A, the spread of maths knowledge in this grouping will be pretty big, varying from very smart to, well, not so smart. This means that the truly smart people have no advantage over the not-so-smart.

Brain Gym

The UK education system has now become so poor, so terribly bad, that hundreds of schools are teaching something called “Brain Gym”, which has been wonderfully exposed by Ben Goldacre (if you don’t own his book already, buy it). In it he gives some examples of the Brain Gym “information”:

“Processed foods” [Brain Gym] announces: “do not contain water.” This has to be the most readily falsifiable statement I’ve seen all week. Any water in soup?

Or how about an exercise to pump more oxygen into your brain:

An exercise called “Brain Buttons”: “Make a ‘C’ shape with your thumb and forefinger and place on either side of the breast bone just below the collar bone. Gently rub for 20 or 30 seconds whilst placing your other hand over your navel. Change hands and repeat. This exercise stimulates the flow of oxygen carrying blood through the carotid arteries to the brain to awaken it and increase concentration and relaxation.” Why? “Brain buttons lie directly over and stimulate the carotid arteries.” Now, I’m waiting to be impressed by any kid who can stimulate his carotid arteries inside his ribcage,

Hundreds, probably thousands of teachers in the UK are teaching this junk, with permission of the state, to pupils. Just so there is no misunderstanding here – anybody who stands up in front of a classroom and says there is no water in processed foods is an idiot, and a dangerous one at that. Further more, anybody being taught by these people could quickly become an idiot unless they get access to some decent education. If this is not dumbing down education what is?

It is these children who are going to be taking A-Levels in science, believing that soup does not contain water.

Anyone who believes that an education system which allows for Brain Gym and ignores/fails to understand scientific studies that prove grade inflation, but can still produce good scientists, is quite delusional.

[1] This excellent phrase was stolen from Ben Goldacre’s book, “Bad Science”


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