Before the A-level results came out, Chris Giles, a one-time colleague of mine at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and now economics editor at the Financial Times, got into a bit of a Twitter spat. He effectively said that teachers who did not give their students the grades they needed to attend their chosen university were failing in their duty to their students. Knowing that some, perhaps particularly in independent schools, would bend the rules to favour their students, all teachers ought to do the same.
Or, as one critic put it, his argument was broadly: “State school teachers follow the rules, the utter bastards!” To which Chris replied: “Yes. Because if you know others will cheat, your upright stance merely has the effect of punishing your students, to whom you have a duty of care.”
Perhaps because I am an economist, perhaps because I have twins who have just been through the whole sorry saga, I agree with Chris. It’s a simple game theory problem. In this situation, it is always in your best interest — in this case, the best interest of your students — to cheat. Of course, we’d be better off if nobody cheated, but when it is in everyone’s individual interest to cheat, it’s pretty hard to avoid a bad outcome.
We got a bad outcome. Bad because there was a lot of cheating, but also because the cheating was inconsistent. You can see that in the way results changed differently between different types of school. The grade inflation in independent schools was especially egregious. The proportion of their students being awarded an A or A* at A-level rose from 44 per cent to 70 per cent between 2019 and 2021. They saw the game, they played it, they won. Those who didn’t game the system, the non-bastards, lost.
Like students at sixth-form colleges. This sector looks like it was the most honest and professional of the lot. Grades were inflated much less. When others didn’t behave well, the good guys got screwed.
Those who have suffered most over the past couple of years, actually, were those doing A-level-equivalent vocational qualifications, like Btecs. Partly because of the way they were assessed, grades rose far less than they did for A-levels. The Education Policy Institute even found that “for some of the most popular qualification types there were decreases in the proportion of students achieving the top grades”. That didn’t hit the headlines. These qualifications are themselves important in the race of university entry. They are increasingly a route into university, especially for those from less-advantaged backgrounds.
In all of this, teachers were left in a completely impossible situation. It is genuinely heart-warming to see the efforts that most schools and teachers made to be fair and to do the right thing (in the social or moral, rather than game theoretic, sense). The undoubted unfairnesses that have resulted and the additional stranglehold of the most privileged on the top grades, they are down to the government’s failure.
There are other culprits, too. Universities can hardly complain about grade inflation as they themselves award ever more first-class and upper-second-class degrees, pretty much confining lower seconds, let alone thirds, to the dustbin of history. Same problem, in fact. If you behave and maintain standards and don’t inflate your grades, you make yourself unattractive. The incentive is to cheat, and so they do. That has consequences, winners and losers. The winners are the most prestigious universities and their students. If employers can’t trust the grades, they’ll rely on reputation.
Universities have an additional responsibility, though. The pressure to get high grades at A -level is intensified by the often unrealistic offers that some universities make. They say they want higher grades than they will actually accept. Advertise that high grades are needed and you become more desirable. Another form of cheating, really.
This game also has consequences. Lindsey Macmillan, my colleague and professor at the UCL Institute of Education, has shown how students from less-advantaged families and less-advantaged schools are more likely to be studying on courses and at universities where they are over-qualified relative to their peers. In part, that may be because they are less well-informed about the games that universities play. Some do, and some don’t, really mean it when they say they need a certain set of grades.
What will happen next? If next year’s A-level students also get grades way above the pre-Covid norm, then the increasing tendency of more prestigious universities to use their own entrance tests and procedures will surely accelerate. And guess which schools and pupils will be best-placed to deal with additional hurdles. If that is what happens, then, one has to wonder what is the point of A-levels? After all, they have persisted in their present form largely because that is what universities have wanted: as a giant sorting mechanism to help to determine where students belong in our highly stratified higher education sector.
Without wanting to sound too Marxist about it, it feels like the internal contradictions in our system must finally result in some sort of fundamental change. Our children are more heavily examined throughout their school careers than in almost any other country. Our 16 to 18-year-olds follow an absurdly narrow curriculum. This is both tough on the kids, and ineffective. Our school system is average, at best, in terms of the skills it imparts and, as far as basic literacy and numeracy are concerned, much worse than most.
Let’s hope this year’s fiasco will at least catalyse a serious reappraisal. And please government, stop putting good, professional, public servants in an almost impossible situation by forcing them to choose between two incompatible versions of doing the right thing.
This article was first published in The Times and is reproduced here with kind permission.