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!

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 14:33:41

Copthall I don't know when you did O levels but in 1983 they were certainly about more than just regurgitating facts! I completely agree with you that today's history GCSE is avery different animal demanding different skills than the old O level. It's not possible to say whether it is harder or easier because that would be like comparing lemons and giraffes. Music these days is more difficult, one can compare because it's basically what we used to have to do for O level, plus a whole load more extra stuff including performing. So, clearly more difficult even if you are a gifted performer, because having to do something even if you are good at it, will always be more difficult than not having to do anything. Maths these days is significantly easier. However I suspect that if you couldn't do maths in the old days you wouldn't get a great grade for GCSE because you still need to be able to do the real stuff (algebra etc) to get a top mark.

The only MFL that I know about is French and in the old days, that required the ability to think speak and write in french and to translate french to english both in writing and in listening. Nowadays, French GCSE requires the ability to learn chunks of text beforehand and regurgitate them. There is no requirement for any ability in the language at all, it's just a memory exercise.

Science in general these days is definitely more difficult if you have issues with practical things, since the ISAs test just those skills. It's also obviously a much tougher ask to have to study all 3 sciences regardless of where your interests lie. English language and lit, and RS, seem to be completely indistinguishable from my day. The only differences are the shorter exams, the moving of some stuff into CAs, and the texts (but I know people who did Of Mice and Men when I was at school. And the shakespeare that DD1 did). I feel though that there is something intrinsically wrong with an Eng Lit exam that that doesn't do Macbeth. But that might be just me.

Kids today have to work far harder than in my day, mainly because of CAs. But if you compare the actual exams, from a standpoint of 10 As at O level and having a DD1 who is on track for similar results and possessed of a similar SEN condition (dyspraxia) - the exams today aren't harder. They aren't easier either. I;d say the level of effort is the same.

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 15:05:01

Russians <Admits she is ancient> the 70s, the very days Gove looks back at with rose tinted specs. I think by the 80s things were moving the way they are now but in the 70s I knew of no one who took 10 O levels, 8 maybe but in our school you took 5 because the school regarded the O level course a waste of time if you were going to study the subject at A level, so you started the A level course instead and had an extra year in which to get used to having to think..........

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 15:12:42

Copthall My husband took 9 in 1969. And he was banned from taking maths (else it would have been 10). He didn't do brilliantly but he got decent grades in 7 of them. I have colleagues a few years older than me who took similar numbers of O levels in the 70s. PErhaps your school was a bit ...odd? Or perhaps it was sexist (all the people I know who took sensible numbers of O levels in the 70s are men. Actually - no. I do know some women who took 10 O levels in 1978 and 1979). It seems as though your school took the Oxbridge matriculation criteria as not the minimum level of achievement but the maximum (5 O levels inc a modern language and 3 different A levels maths and english to be in there at either O or A level).

It would of course have been impossible to do A level maths or the sciences without doing the O level syllabus first, I don't know about MFL or Geog. History and English, you could have done like that. Music not.

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 15:20:32

Well I did History English and Geography but the same policy applied across the board, I didn't study my rather peculiar Science O level Physics with Chemistry (saved them having to scrape me off the lab floors whenever there was any blood or gore in Biology) with any serious Physicists, they were off doing proper Physics, same with Maths. I think the school saw itself as being seriously academic and that O levels just were not challenging enough. They had a good 20% going off to Oxford each year, most of the rest Bristol and Durham.

Dragonwoman Fri 08-Mar-13 15:31:04

Oh I took 8 o levels - I just didn't pass them all! And one CSE - in Design & Creativity. I am not very creative...

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 15:33:04

I think it would be fair to say that even in 1969 QE boys Barnet was a pretty academic school. smile As was my school. Although we didn't send 20% to Cambridge or Oxford. More like 5% in a good year. 20% for a non posh school would be pretty good now (DD1's school is a tad under) let alone in the 70s. 20% from a state school in the 70s would have been amazing newspaper stuff, surely? Some of the male colleagues I know with 9, 10 or more O levels obtained in the 70s went to St Pauls and similar posh London day schools. Also quite academic. None of them went to Oxbridge.

I do think your school was an oddity (albeit perhaps an oddity that would really have appealed to me - I like the idea of not bothering with something because it is too easy and sod the soulless minions of orthodoxy insisting that you do it anyway) because I honestly don't know anyone from the 70s who only has 5 O levels but was capable of doing more.

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 15:37:20

Copthallresident and Russiansonthespree, can I just say how pleased I was to read your posts? I realise you are not completely in agreement but it is just so darn refreshing to hear well informed people say they exams are different, not necessarily easier.

With Gove, different=easier. Once you accept that is not the case, you can have a sensible discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches (eg, I would agree the MFL approach allows for a multitude of sins, history seems to demand both large amounts of detailed info and the ability to analyses, synthesise, compare etc).

I agree the dcs work hard for good results and think it is most unfair all they hear is rubbish about ow easy their exams are from journalists who have only looked at the first page of an exam (The Telegraph is terrible for this, printing the first qn on a maths paper and then sneering. Try looking at the last question dears!).

Thank you both!

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 15:42:25

Tired - anyone who has kids who has gone through - or is going through - the process can see that it's not easier. The unremitting pressure caused by things like practicals, CAs etc is horrendous. I certainly wouldn't swap. I get quite annoyed when i see people saying things like 'I got some Cs and Bs and lots of kids now get fab marks so it must be easier these days'. That's why I always put my medals on the table, as it were, in discussions like this. Someone who got poor results back in the day isn't in a position to judge the kids who get great results today. The kids who get great results today have to work incredibly hard almost all the time, and because they don't have the luxury of lots of essays at this level, they have to get things bang on in just a sentence or two. Which is quite an advanced skill, and one that many people don't have.

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 15:43:27

Some very high profile independent schools and I think grammars did only do five o-levels until the late 70s I think. It was what you needed to matriculate. They did other courses/their own curricula and stuff instead. So very unusual in grand scheme of things, but t did happen. Some very academic schools now do fewer GCSEs than their neighbours (fewer being a relative term smile).

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 15:44:16

Gove's big weakness in this debate is his kids are too young for him to have experienced the process first hand and he seems unable or unwilling to listen to anyone else who might actually know what they are talking about when he makes his (almost uniformly) poor decisions. sad

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 15:45:34

I agree, Russian, but it makes good headlines doesn't it?

And I have heard parents say it in general, but of course it doesn't apply to their own children.

I completely agree about the pressure - it is tiring just to watch, just one thing after another.

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 15:47:50

Tired - yes, but as I said above Matric was supposed to be a minimum level of attainment not a ceiling! grin I wonder if they only taught their kids enough to get 2 Es at A level? (Above I wrongly stated that matric was 3 different A levels but of course it was 2 hence the lovely 2 E offer which most probably still ranks as the nicest letter I have ever received. Even nicer than the one with the PPI cheque in it. grin )

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 16:07:23

Russians Not wanting to out myself too much, but it was common practice in certain grammar schools. They were not posh schools at all, a very socially mixed intake because they were direct grammars so lots of County and City Scholarships , as well as a means tested scale of fees. Together with the boy's school (which sent 30% to Oxbridge) and similar schools in similar cities the schools educated the same sort of proportion of the Labour and, later Social Democrat leadership, that Eton and Westminster account for in the education of the current leadership. Ironically that same leadership did for them as socially inclusive but for a while they were quite a powerful vehicles of social mobility, and it had absolutely nothing to do with O levels, Mr Gove!!

Tired Totally agree

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 16:12:35

In fact the boys' grammar not only skipped the O levels to start the A level course but took the A level a year early so that they could focus on S levels and Oxbridge in Upper Sixth whereas we girls had to do a dreaded seventh term at school for Oxbridge.

And speaking of sexism I forgot to mention the dreaded secretarial room at the end of the farthest wing where a few girls each year whose parents resisted the schools relentless bluestockinged feminism and felt they should leave and get a job / find a husband were banished to achieve amazing typing and shorthand speeds and limited to an A level or 2. I forgot to mention them because they never were mentioned again.............

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 16:19:29

grin It's the 'scale of fees' bit that made them posh. That's normally the hint. A posh school doesn't have to be filled 100% with the wealthy.

But that's by the by in terms of this discussion - obviously there was a select band of schools that only let its pupils do 5 O levels but since I know many people from the 70s with rather more than 5 O levels I think we can safely say it wasn't majority practice, just practice in a certain type of posh school. But I do think that it's not surprising if you only did 5 O levels that you think the exams today are much harder. From the standpoint of a similar number of exams I stand by my view that the degree of difficulty is overall the same and the degree of stress (and competition) is higher. Which is ironic when you think that GCSEs were supposed to be accessible to everyone instead of 'the few' and they abandoned norm referencing (hence competitive grading) in 1987(? or was it 1986?)

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 16:20:05

Oh yes - seventh term, that was another hallmark of the posh. Us non posh kids had to do the exam in the 4th term.

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 16:21:32

...and it was still less stressy than it is for the poor kids of today. sad

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 16:35:02

Russians When 50% of the places were County or City Scholarships and the scale meant that where we lived hardly anyone earned enough to pay fees? When the schools together with the boys' school are right bang in the middle of some of the most deprived areas in the country and all of us, without exception, came from families where at least one branch had arrived in this country within two generations, some much more recently? One of the many things I picked up at school not learnt at O level was a deep understanding of Jewish, Eastern European, and Pakisatani cultures, the Irish culture I got in stereo.... Plenty of my friends lived in the two up two down, and even the odd surviving one up one down back to back terraces that surrounded our school, actually my friend who came from the most poverty stricken background was the daughter of the Methodist minister who served the area.

I certainly didn't feel posh when I arrived at uni and was relentlessly teased for my accent..........

But the standard of education at the schools , that was posh if you like, a meritocracy that was unashamedly elitist, and therefore sneered at O levels.....

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 16:36:59

posh education and a deep understanding of everything about Pakistani culture except how to spell it grin

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 16:51:27

Copthall - Fees, love. Fees.grin

I suppose what all this goes to show is that there was just so much more diversity in the system in the 70s than there is now. One council estate Londoner's posh is another person's not posh. One person's amazing diversity is another person's normal unremarkable everyday situation. One person's thing to be scorned is another person's thing to be if not proud of then at least not ashamed of (you may scorn my 10 O levels or my husband's 9 but we'd both be embarrassed to have fewer to be honest). I can't see that this is what Gove wants to return to though. He is a soulless minion of orthodoxy. He wants all kids to do 3 sciences or 'introduction to working in poundland' - he seems to see no other path for anyone, certainly not a path in the arts (whether academic or commercial). He wouldn't like either of us - neither of us did 3 sciences at O level and neither of us did any sciences at A level (he might possibly count my maths and further maths as useful but probably not - another of his things is dumbing maths down).

Not only are today's exams just as hard as those of yesteryear in terms of the exam experience (and the course of study leading up to the exams) (except possibly for French) but the prospect for kids afterwards is SO much grimmer that that in itself must make life harder. Our poor kids. sad

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 17:10:38

Yes You just bought home to me that I do not have the Ebacc in my O levels! and so now according to Gove would be a lost cause... Forget the possibility of a 25 year career in marketing, including flying the flag for UK PLC, and generating opportunity in that part of the world where the economy is not in stagnation, because we do not need people equipped with the skills to understand other cultures, we can all be like Cameron and go and put our elephantine foot in it left right and centre ...

BTW I do not sneer at people having 10 O levels, I was describing the attitudes of the joyless uncompromising bluestockinged lesbian cabal who ran my school. I didn't agree with them on most things on principle.

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 17:21:51

I don't have the EBacc either. 10 As at O level, 3 As at A level, a 2:1 from Cambridge and a professional qualification but Gove considers me under educated sad - I opted to do Latin, Physics, History and Music - so my single science makes me an unmentionable so far as he is concerned.

Still. The man's a twat (as is his wife - and I know someone who knows them so this isn't just a view gleaned from the media. Although the person I know who knows them is in the media so....) and I can happily do without his good opinion which to me is an indicator of someone I can do well without associating with. grin

(I am being rather rude about people today. Earlier on I called Kate Aldridge a cow. blush )

Lovecat Fri 08-Mar-13 17:24:20

I don't know the exact details, however:

Last year my brother and his mates decided, for a laugh, to take the current GCSE Biology exam paper (that's the kind of wild & crazy guys they are hmm).

My brother did Biology to A level, but hasn't looked at the subject since 1983. Most of his friends (all mid to late 40's) did it at O level but never went further. One of them is proud of his boast that he has never picked up a book (about anything) since he left school. The agreement was that they'd all go into it cold, no revision (I have no idea if this was adhered to!).

Now, obviously I don't know what else the proper GCSE Biology qualification involves and there must be some coursework in it (?) that adds into the final grade so there's no way they'd pass the whole thing on that basis, however:

They all passed the exam that they took. Even the no books guy. None of them passed brilliantly, I think the highest grade achieved was a B, but they all passed it.

INeverSaidThat Fri 08-Mar-13 17:26:29

We have a copy of my DH A'level Math paper dated mid seventies it is loads, loads easier than my DC's A level Maths papers. Anecdotal but true !

A'levels haven't been dumbed down. Teaching methods have improved massively and children's and families expectations and aspirations have increased.

Most DC's work extremely hard for their 'string' of A and A* GCSE's and A'levels.

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 17:54:20

Hi, you have moved on but yes - these schools did the exams necessary for matriculation - they taught way beyond that - of course it was the minimum! And yes, sometimes people dropped subjects for exams after getting that magic 2Es letter - did other courses/carried on studying and reading but not the exam or the tight syllabus necessarily. So it really isn't possible to compare - in that minority of schools (academically confident for sure), exams were just not that important. Remember nothing was published then by these schools, apart from leavers' destinations. And going further back, my father at a grammar school (not especially good one) in the 40s I suppose only did 6 or 7 I think.

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