How difficult is it to get good grades at GCSE & A level these days?

(76 Posts)
Dragonwoman Wed 06-Mar-13 10:22:59

Asking the question because the Mumsnet offspring seem to be very high performers generally!

Am starting to get a little concerned as I have 3 DCs currently in primary school & the more I read, the more it seems competition will be very stiff at secondary level & beyond.

I am old enough to have taken O levels. Now granted I went to a poorly performing comp (in the days before league tables, so schools tended to get away with being lazy) but I don't remember ANYONE getting an A at O level. Not one. Never mind a string of them. I got 5 O levels - Bs & Cs and was considered to have done well. I had never met anyone socially who had been to university apart from the older sister of one friend who had been to a polytechnic.

Of course everything is different now, but I'm wondering how different? If I were 16 again with the same effort on my part (but considerably more on the part of the school) would my 5 O levels transform into 9 GCSEs A-C with a few As?

I guess I am concerned about my DCs. If they get 5 GCSEs Bs & Cs, that will not stack up well nationally in comparison to their peers.

Both my DH & I got into university without As at A level. We came out with 2.2 degrees. Again not that great by todays standards.

I'm asking, because assuming our DCs are academically as able as DH & I, will their grades look better than ours? I'm hoping so, when viewing the competition!

senua Wed 06-Mar-13 10:44:01

The main thing that I have learned is not to say "in my day ...". That was then, this is now. Times have changed (for better? for worse? Who knows, but they have changed).

There are statistics and league tables galore for you to work out what is the current norm.

FWIW, we are at another sea-change. After years of grade inflation, the Powers That Be have- suddenly and without warning - decided to crack down.
[not looking forward to results tomorrow emoticon]

Dragonwoman Wed 06-Mar-13 10:57:43

Well I can see that according to the tables, the general norm these days is much higher.

But I hear a lot about DCs predicted clutches of As. Do the state school educated children of professional parents generally get all these As? Or are these mainly privately or grammar school DCs getting these?

We are in Wales & I don't think league tables apply here. Although I can see percentages A-C & the number of As per subject on school websites, I'm not sure how many DCs get a lot of As for instance.

Lindor Wed 06-Mar-13 11:11:39

My DC are at a state school where a good number of pupils each year get a good crop of As and A*. Some have parents who are professionals and some don't. The school is very supportive.

My results at O level were similar to yours OP, not an A to be seen, but DS managed 2 A* and 5 A grades last summer. He rarely missed school, and worked hard at critical moments. He could have worked harder...

Here's hoping tomorrow's AS results match up. Good luck to anyone else awaiting results tomorrow

senua Wed 06-Mar-13 11:14:46

Don't get carried away by statistics. They only tell you that "on average, you can expect blah blah blah". However, they are not writ in stone, there is always someone who bucks the trend (in a good way or a bad way).

On average, a child of intelligent parents in a supportive loving home will do well. Is that what you want to hear?grin

Dragonwoman Wed 06-Mar-13 11:24:08

seuna Not sure - because I'm not sure whether we are intelligent parents! wink.

I keep hearing 'an intelligent child will do well anywhere' but

a) I'm not sure that's true &
b) I don't think my DCs are 'top of the class' bright currently. I am certainly glad we don't live in a grammar school area, because they wouldn't all pass the 11+ for definite.

So I do worry a bit.

senua Wed 06-Mar-13 11:32:43

Take a chill pill.smile I know someone who got to Oxbridge then crashed and burned. Someone who was at national level in sport but died of heart failure. Someone who was nothing at school but now has his own business and employs ten others. Someone who did well at school but gave up the rat race for the good life.

Health and happiness are the important things.

Copthallresident Wed 06-Mar-13 14:11:33

Dragonwoman. I have two DDS, one at uni, one in sixth, and for what it is worth this is my experience.

It obviously is hugely more competitive to get on to the popular courses at the popular and best ranked universities, probably more competitive than it was to get into Oxbridge when I was applying to university. Many more applicants all with A*A across the board. That is the source of all the winding up on these threads. However that is not the whole story, courses are not necessarily popular because they are the best, that may be down to the city, or parental prejudice etc. and there are good courses at popular unis, and very good courses at less popular unis (which might actually academically be superior to the courses at the popular unis IYSWIM) that are less competitive to get on to. The opportunity to go to university has obviously widened hugely, especially for girls. Makes me livid when people rant on about how the huge expansion in the number of university places automatically means a reduction in standards when whole swathes of the population just did not have that opportunity however bright they were, including the fact that women made up 10% of the university populations and now make up 50%. Are the 4 in 5 girls at uni now who wouldn't have been at uni 30 years ago any less bright than the boys who made up the majority then? Personal experience tells me most definitely NOT wink

GCSEs and A levels are more demanding in terms of skills, and they do more of them so it is harder work but they are supported through it more intensively by the teachers. There is too much teaching to the exam but at the same time it does enable them to do well. It just would not have occurred to our teachers to do anything more than teach us the curriculum, hand us some past papers and leave us to get on with proving we knew it. DDs have been carefully tutored in how to answer the different types of questions, and how to get the marks. Of course who knows how this will change when Gove gets his hands on it all...........

I have felt sorry for my girls because they do have to work harder, and it is relentless from age 16 on but in the end they have the same chances to go to a good university as I had.

Copthallresident Wed 06-Mar-13 14:15:50

And when they get to universities courses are more demanding (I am back there now myself) but they do have a much greater work ethic in place which combined with the high standards for entry is why there are so many more 2.1s and Firsts. I would not get a 2.1 now based on the amount of work I did at a RG uni in the 70s.

grovel Wed 06-Mar-13 14:36:14

I think teaching nowadays is better (albeit too much "to the test").
I think kids have to work harder nowadays (public exams for three years in a row).
I think the exam structure (modules, coursework etc) make it easier for kids to show their best.
So, my guess is, yes, that you would have 9 GCSE's A-C with a sprinkling of As and A*s.

KateShrub Wed 06-Mar-13 15:14:04

It is MUCH easier to get the higher grades now than under O Levels, but equally as an A(*) no longer proves that you are Oxbridge calibre (say), getting into Oxbridge/Medicine/other oversubscribed courses, is now potentially more difficult for the best candidates since the pool of students with qualifying grades is that much larger.

The actual level of attainment/ability hasn't improved, but teachers have got better at targeting the required grades so beyond the general extreme dumbing down causing grade inflation there are also more students reaching the required standards.

slipshodsibyl Wed 06-Mar-13 15:41:19

I'd agree with Grovel and Copthall and say the level of attainment has certainly improved. High grades are far more common which is not quite the same as saying they are easier to get, though the consensus seems to be that they are somewhat easier to get.

Dragon, you would probably have got a 'better' haul of grades had you taken your exams recently, but you would have worked harder and probably been taught more effectively for them.

BestIsWest Wed 06-Mar-13 18:08:27

I do think you tend to hear a lot about the A* and A achievers on Mumsnet when many of our DCs do not get such stellar results. This doesn't mean they don't reach university or do well in later life.

My DD managed 1 A at GCSE and a string of Bs and Cs followed by B,C E at A level. She's still managed to get to university. It may not be an RG one but it's still a reasonably well respected one and she's doing well.

FWIW she beat all my results by a margin of 1 grade in each subject. I made it to a poly and came out with a 2:2 as well OP.

creamteas Wed 06-Mar-13 19:10:10

One of the big differences is that O levels were not criteria marked, there was a fixed % who got As, Bs etc. So whilst to get an A you were one of the best in that year, you could have been better or worse than A grade students in other years.

As a uni admissions tutor I see thousands of applications from young people so can see their results. The entry grades to my uni range from AAB-BBB and the vast majority of young people who apply to us have a 3/4 As or A*s, a few Bs and maybe 1 or 2 Cs at GCSE.

Whilst more people are getting top grades overall, this is spread over a lot of people......

grovel Wed 06-Mar-13 22:47:08

creamteas, how difficult your job must be. My DS was in the top A Level sets at his (selective) public school. They all got A grades (the year before A*s were introduced). He knew that that there were at least 2 "grades" within his sets - possibly 3.

Pyrrah Thu 07-Mar-13 12:45:37

I was at a grammar school and the first cohort to sit GCSE rather than O' Levels.

As a very selective and sought after school, the potential of the students to achieve very high grades was there. We all sat 9 or 10 GCSEs. Most people managed a couple of A grades, one person got 7 A grades and 3 got 5.

My youngest sister (13 years younger) got 7 A* and 4 A grades at GCSE having done the minimum required to keep the teachers off her back (and I really mean minimum).

So I would say that either the teachers are teaching entirely to the test and coursework being repeated until perfect, or there has been massive grade inflation especially at the higher grades.

I think that this has not been in many children's favours - they have the A grades, but are competing against a multitude of others with a string of A grades, then don't understand why they don't walk into courses and universities that would have been pretty much a dead cert with AAA twenty years ago. The A* has gone some way towards dividing the exceptional from the very good, but I imagine an A** could easily be accommodated.

I do find it astonishing how many schools turn out children who don't achieve 5 GCSEs - just seems incredible that this is even possible unless the child never turns up or have extreme SEN.

Dragonwoman Thu 07-Mar-13 23:52:27

Thanks all - food for thought. I guess you probably hear more about the really high achievers too. smile

I realise times have changed - in my year group of 150. 9 took English Language o level. 5 passed. The rest took CSE or nothing at all. No school would get away with that now!

iclaudius Fri 08-Mar-13 00:00:16

I'm with Senua

HollyBerryBush Fri 08-Mar-13 06:34:57

Personal perspective?

Very few GCSEs I couldnt sit and not get an A/B without having done the course. But that comes with age i suppose and a great deal of general knowledge.

Anecdotally, I was a maths dunce, I got a Grade 2 CSE back in '82, failed my O Level. I took GCSE maths for a bet 2 years ago and got a B. I haven't been in a class room for 30 years.

But the traditional A level hasn't dumbed down, they are as difficult as they were back in my day!

I would also comment that on the radio yesterday, it was stated 17 million adults in the uk are functionally innumerate (as in wouldnt even manage a G grade at GCSE) and 44% of males aged 16-65 are functionally illiterate and innumerate. That is astounding.

CheeryCherry Fri 08-Mar-13 06:54:15

Another O level parent here, my DS is predicted A's and B'day this summer, but has already had exams towards these final grades, therefore has had, I think, a better chance of high grades with this system. However DD is in year 9, and will just take subject exams at the end of year 11, as we did at O level.
I think this will result in a drop in grades, with a month of stress and cramming for each subject. More pupils will struggle with this, compared to revising for bite-size exams.
Schools will end up with lower ofsted results due to lower overall GCSE results. Then there will be a huge education overhaul. Again. Sigh.
There should have been a middle ground, ie, exams at the end of year 10&11 to make a final grade.

lljkk Fri 08-Mar-13 07:29:09

Come back in the summer, OP, and see what grades people's DC really got for GCSEs, and what A-level choices they have. Then see what A-level results there were (August time). Sometimes MNers are more ordinary than you'd think.

I come from a system where results are registered as %tiles over the entire national cohort, better than qualitative marks, maybe.

We have 4 DC; one of whom is strongly academic (plus well organised, confident) & most likely will have results like we did or even better. 2 are good, but we don't expect to be as high achievers as us. And one is "Lord Knows Stand Well Back". All different.

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 09:55:04

Hollyberrybush I am always amused by people who think they could do better now in GCSEs than they did in O levels, let alone think they are such a walk in the park they could do them now armed with their general knowledge. Really? You could sit 10 GCSEs tomorrow and come away with decent grades? Were I to sit GCSEs tomorrow in my DDs subjects, Alzheimer's apart wink, I might pass Maths with a decent grade but suspect I wouldn't pass the ones I have postgrad qualifications in!

Of course I could do better now in O level Maths than I did then, O levels / GCSEs alike demonstrate to an employer / educational institutions that you have developed the knowledge and skills you need for a working life / further study (as well as a whole load you don't need) so if you have worked a decade or so I should jolly well hope you have used your numeracy skills, if not in your work, then in renovating your home, helping your DCs , doing sudoko, etc etc etc. As it happens I could do A level Maths now as a result of the knowledge I gained in a marketing career but so what, I don't have to prove I have those skills to an employer, since I have a CV that proves it. You are right though that it is a scandal that so many people are not equipped with basic numeracy and literacy skills at school .

If I had to sit the ten GCSEs my DDs sat tomorrow, even though I have two Masters degrees, one covering History, English and Anthropology, and I am widely read I obviously would not have the detailed knowledge of the set texts for English Literature and of the periods covered in History (though it has been interesting to learn about them in discussion with DDs). Add in the developments in Science, such as the hugely expanded periodic table (do you know the current one off by heart???) the ability to actually apply my knowledge of MFL (a three minute talk with diverse vocabulary on climate change?!) I could probably do the ethics part of the Religion and ethics paper because that tests knowledge of issues we should all understand (and isn't it great they are armed with that knowledge and awareness at16, something O levels most certainly did not equip you with) but I certainly don't know St Marks gospel off by heart, let alone understand the theological themes. I could go on in terms of the detailed knowledge required.....

Add to that whilst I could of course do the sources paper and build up the detailed arguments in response to a question for the History GCSE I most certainly would not have been able to do so at 16. None of those skills were required for O level and some I didn't develop until university. Likewise with English Literature, DDs have been required to use skills in literary criticism I did not need until A level. Unless you have studied History and English Lit at a higher level since I doubt very much that you have those skills.

I also would not be equipped to understand the mark scheme and exactly what the examiners are looking for as my DDs were.

In fact had I sat my daughters 10 GCSEs instead of the 5 O levels I sat at my academic grammar, and that enabled me to get a place to read History at a RG uni, I would have had to do three times as much work and have developed skills I did not develop until much further on in my education. I certainly wouldn't pass them if I sat them tomorrow.

BackforGood Fri 08-Mar-13 12:06:32

Thing being Copthrall - you don't need to learn the periodic table - you can have it in front of you in the exam.
You can have texts in front of you in other exams.
You aren't expected to be able to have a conversation about anything the examiner likes in your French oral - you prepare and learn a short passage beforehand.
They are not comparable, but our children have to do their best with the systems we have now.
To return to the OP, it's always been the case that some people left with strings of O-levels, or GCSEs, and then there was a whole range of people down to those leaving with no qualifications at all. I think these days, a lot more is done to ensure no-one leaves with no qualification at all, than was the case, 20, 40, or 60 years ago, which has got to be a good thing. I also think you need to know that MNers don't present a representitive view of the whole cohort of parents wink

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 13:34:18

Depends on exam boards doesn't it? My DDs did not have texts in front of them in exams, I wish, they like me are dyslexic and learning quotes dates etc. is a nightmare, obviously more for me than them since regurgitating facts was all the O levels were about. ditto for the oral they knew the topic and could prepare vocab etc but were asked questions, the difference between DD1 and DD2 was that by DD2 they were given three shots at it after one of DD1s friends completely dried up in the oral, couldn't say a single word. Granted now you are given Maths formulae but then that is real life. I don't know if they were given the PT just that they did know it and it is much bigger and more complex than it was when I had to learn it..

If you go back to my first post then it being different rather than easier was exactly my point. However DCs work harder and are better prepared. Having said that Gove wants to go back to those O levels which IME demonstrated very little but the chance to regurgitate "stuff".

Did they leave school with a string of O levels in that era? At my very selective direct grant grammar we took 5, and maybe one girl got a string of 1s. We made the national news when at A level a third of us got 3 As. And we were in the top narrow percentile that went to uni, but then we didn't work particularly hard, a bit of cramming just before the exams , that was all that was needed to get the grades needed. Now pupils know they have to get the top grades, and they do what they have to.

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 14:09:42

Of course another variable was that I don't remember any parents being remotely pushy. My Mum was a teacher and Dad a graduate so they were the first generation to uni, but it was entirely up to me how hard I worked, what subjects I chose, which unis I applied to and the same applied to all my friends, granted many of their parents had not been educated past 16 but some had. I remember a brief conversation with Dad after the History teacher suggested Oxbridge but he soon gave up in the face of the black fog that descended at the suggestion of a seventh term at school.....

No parents tutoring or getting tutors from Year 4, or taking up religion, no parents sailing into school unless invited, no parents accompanying you on uni visits, no Mumsnet so they could aquaint themselves with the minutiae of the means to their offspring's success wink

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