A Driving Instructor's Blog

Well, the BBC has been behaving as if no one ever – in the history of the universe – has ever got their exam results at this time of year. And once again, record A Level pass rates have been recorded.

I heard a funny job advertisement on Smooth Radio the other day. For anyone who doesn’t know, Smooth Radio is a radio channel which specialises in half decent music part of the time, absolutely crap music for another part of the time, and inexplicable and ne’er-acknowledged silences the rest of the time. The inexplicable silences can be quite a big chunk if the station is going through a bad patch. Oh, and it also likes to arrange for the news, adverts, and music pre-recorded loops to all play at the same time, sometimes. Especially at weekends when there’s no one around to push the right button on the DJ console. Oh (again), it also likes to claim that it doesn’t play the same music over and over (like other local stations do), which is only true if you don’t include Rod Stewart, Michael Bublé, and anything to do with Motown… other than those, they don’t repeatedly play the same music over and over.

Anyway, this job wanted someone with:

…a 1st degree or equivalent and [exceptional] administration skills.

What the hell is equivalent to a 1st class degree? A BTEC? A food hygiene certificate? A season ticket to Stoke City? And it goes to show how valuable a degree really is when they want someone with a 1st who has exceptional “admin skills”.

The Daily Mail did an article a while ago about how questions from past papers were baffling to pupils trying to answer them today. Admittedly, the Daily Mail will no doubt run a series of articles over the next week about how it is ridiculous to suggest exams are getting easier and that it is children getting smarter which explains improving pass rates. Even in one of its more lucid articles from today it quotes…

Mike Cresswell, director general of the AQA, insisted there was no evidence to suggest exams were getting easier.

He said: ‘The improvements differ between regions so naive dumbing-down arguments do not wash.’

We all know this is total bullshit – exam questions are NOT as hard now as they were in the past. So, I did a bit of scouting myself and here’s what I found (this is for O levels and GCSEs, but it holds true for A Levels as well).

First of all, thanks to Maths Answers, I found a few Maths O Level papers from the late 1950s and late 1960s. Anyone who did O Levels will know that the first section always had the “easy”, “quick” questions in it. So from 1957, we have:

1957 O Level Maths Paper - Section 1
1957 O Level Maths Paper – Section 1

And from 1968 (note that there was also a question A6 but I clipped it off just so I could keep it in a graphic the same size as the 1957 one):

1968 O Level Maths Paper - Section A
1968 O Level Maths Paper – Section A

Now, I hope you’re all sitting comfortably and have been meditating or playing Nintendo DS brain-training games – we’re about to see some modern GCSE Maths paper questions. If you don’t prepare yourselves properly, your brains might explode from the strain…

Here is question 1 from a May 2008 paper (sorry about the formatting – it appears that modern children are all visually challnged and need to have a whole page for each question):

2008 Maths GCSE - Question 1
2008 Maths GCSE – Question 1

You can immediately see how standards have not dropped in the slightest – this question is easily as tough as any of those from 1957 or 1968! I mean, is that a nice clip art of the cathedral, or what? And it gets harder. Also from the same paper we have question 2:

2008 Maths GCSE - Question 2
2008 Maths GCSE – Question 2

That one must separate the wheat from the chaff. And it moves on to question 3:

2008 Maths GCSE - Question 3
2008 Maths GCSE – Question 3

Statistics, too? And now the really heavy stuff… question 4:

2008 Maths GCSE - Question 4
2008 Maths GCSE – Question 4

OK. Sarcasm over. I could go on, but you get the idea. This paper was one I picked randomly, but they are all the same.

Now, if you seriously believe that the modern question papers are difficult per se then you have no right passing an opinion on whether or not they are easier than they were 40 years ago – you simply don’t know enough to comment (or you are a parent so blinded by love for your child that you just can’t see facts staring you in the face). They are easy. Extremely easy.

No one who is capable of answering the older papers will be in any doubt that the modern ones are much, much easier. Embarrassingly so. So embarrassingly easy, in fact, that you seriously have to question the suitability of anyone in government or elsewhere – like Mike Cresswell, who argues they are not  easier – for the positions they currently occupy. It is extremely unlikely anyone taught the syllabus for the 2008 paper would understand a single word of the 1968 or 1957 ones, let alone be capable of answering the questions, and people like Mike Cresswell are responsible for a wholesale decline in educational standards as a result of their transparent attempts to talk themselves up.

Let’s face it, Mr Cresswell and his kind wouldn’t be in their jobs long if they admitted exams were being dumbed down, would they?

Speaking personally, I can answer every single one of the questions on the 2008 paper without breaking sweat – they are basic general knowledge, with the answer provided in the question itself. But even though I passed Maths O Level (and have a degree in Chemistry), I’d have to do some serious revising to be able to answer a lot of the questions on those older papers.

I can’t believe this is even a debate. Exams are easier now. It’s a demonstrable fact.

EDIT: Suddenly getting a lot of hits from the Vote UK Discussion Forum. Like most forums, it has a strokes-chin-looks-wise-and-says-mmmm-but-I-think-he’s-missing-the-point character who thinks he knows everything.

I should point out once again that the exam papers shown above were not hand picked. They were a random selection from a website from which you can download ANY modern past paper. Getting the old ones was the real challenge.

No matter which paper you take, if it is a GCSE paper then comparing it with old ‘O’ Level papers is like comparing a cat with a horse and trying to argue that they’re the same animal! Unfortunately, this is exactly what the people claiming exams aren’t easier are saying.

Also worth pointing out to Mr strokes-chin-looks-wise-and-says-mmmm-but-I-think-he’s-missing-the-point über-expert that I am a chemist, and that he shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – or a person by their current job.

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