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 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

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.

sunnyday123 Fri 08-Mar-13 17:55:12

Aren't many A levels modular now though? I did my A levels in 1996 and mine were all one exam after two years of study with coursework accounting for less than 20% of grade and coursework certainly couldn't be repeated. I got bbc grades at a level. My degree was modular and I got a first. Modular is much easier than remembering everything covered in 2 years surely?

grovel Fri 08-Mar-13 18:33:13

sunnyday, I think it depends on your definition of "easier". The material may be harder but showing what you know may be easier. I suppose.

SwedishEdith Fri 08-Mar-13 18:52:58

But, Lovecat, the gcse is designed to be taken by 15/16 years olds. I'm the same age as your brother and his friends and I just know more stuff simply because I've lived longer. I think anyone who is reasonably intelligent and interested (and your brother and his mates sound like that simply because they chose sit a gcse for a laugh) just naturally acquires more knowledge.

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 19:13:05

SwedishEdith, that is so true. And biology is all around us - blood groups, what the heart does, how animals are adapted. And what my dc do in biology seems very similar to what I do. I suspect you wouldn't get a higher grade liek that. Good on them for an interesting experiment!

creamteas Fri 08-Mar-13 20:01:28

I barely went to school when I was 15 (for a variety of reasons too boring to do into). My entire strategy was to read the textbook the day before the exam and I managed to get 7/8 O levels, (1A, 3B, 3C). At the time I was blessed with an excellent memory so for most subjects this was enough. The failure was in music which is not surprising as it was the one subject that required sustained work.

My kids work much harder that I ever did, and their teachers do as well. The grammar school I attended rarely looked at your books and although they set homework they never marked it, I worked this out fairly early on and consequently never bothered doing any grin I don't remember them even saying anything about my non-attendance.

I am also an EBAC failure, having only 1 science grin

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 20:44:50

sunnyday DDs' school do all GCSE and A level exams at the end of the two year course, most are the course designed that way but with ones that are designed to be modular it all gets a bit silly. DD sat 6 Science exams this summer, would have been 9 if she sat triple. On the other hand her English Literature exam designed to be sat at the end of the two years with just two pieces of coursework, was 60% dependent on two essays written in an hour. I assume that Gove's plans do not encompass testing knowledge within 3 exams for every GCSE, if you sat 10 that would be 30 exams, so the amount of knowledge of the curriculum they can test will be reduced and the chances of messing up increased.

Modular exams though mean relentless pressure and ruined Christmas's......

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 22:11:52

Sadly, Gove's plans do mean that. All modules to be taken at the end but (in the short term at least) no fewer modules (I checked this recently at options evening). So yes, loads of exams at the end and CAs in the year. Have schools where the norm s for the bright kids to do more than say 10 GCSEs, perhaps manageable with some modules taken in yr 10, taken this on board?

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 22:52:32

Tired DD1's school do all terminal exams, all in Y10. No modules. They do 11 subjects. Gove's plans seem unlikely to change this.

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 09:06:20

Russian, they are already doing all terminal exams (albeit in year 10, which is the school's perogative). The change means no more modules during the course - it is all terminal. All schools will have to do that, most haven't until now but your dd's school already is so there will be no change. Is that what you mean? Sorry, I don't understand.

I was wondering whether schools have been looking at their syllabi - for example, I gather that iGCSEs, because they were always all terminal have fewer papers (not absolutely sure about that - anecdotal) - does anyone think schools will switch to boards and syllabi with fewer papers?

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 09:11:09

Thinking further, what is behind my question is - does anyone think Gove has done this to deflate grades (without causing the sort of political and legal snarl up we saw this summer?)?

Grades could go down because: kids may perform less well doing so many exams together, especially in courses designed to be modular so they may not have studied some material for a long time; no resit chances during the course; and schools may switch board and course to ones that were designed to be (more?) terminal, which might depress grades in the short term too?

mummytime Sat 09-Mar-13 09:16:40

I think AQA for one is reducing the number of papers. But instead of doing C1, B1 and P1 for core science, you will sit one Core Science exam, which takes 3x as long. There will also be two routes to triple science: Seperate sciences (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) or Core, Additional and Further Additional. Both sets test all the same material, but one will group questions by science area, the other will group by difficulty.

The real change is getting rid of December/January resits; which existed even back in the olden days (I sat one, a friend was ill and did all her A'levels at resit time).

Copthallresident Sat 09-Mar-13 10:25:16

Tired The English Literature exam I mentioned was IGCSE, two pieces of coursework (40%) and one one hour exam, 2 questions.

Interestingly DDs' schools results deflated 40% this year (a dysfunctional year but not that dysfunctional), have anecdotally heard similar results from other indies, and the IGCSE is supposedly immune to political interference.........

Theas18 Sat 09-Mar-13 10:43:34


I'm from a piss poor academically (then) comp and got 7A 2B and a C. My friend got 9A 1B .we were the high achievers and largely did it ourselves, but it was achievable. We did have to set our sights above what the school though was possible though...

My kid are/were grammar educated and get brilliant grades. However they do also work bloody hard, it's not all "natural ability". From what I'm seeing from the eldest at uni, actually she is not working as hard now but (probably having found her"thing") is flying so high that mn would terrel me I'm making it up...

RussiansOnTheSpree Sat 09-Mar-13 11:02:36

Tired I meant what I said - they don't do modules. All the exams are at the end of the two years (they start the GCSE programme in Y9 and do all their exams at the end of Y10. Well, you know - May and June. Obviously they do the CAs during the year but most of them have been in Y10 too, I think. Not many in Y9.

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 11:48:28

Russian, yes I know, that is what I thought you meant, and I believe you smile, I just don't see why it is relevant. And of course that won't change as a result of the new rules because your dd's school is already doing what Gove wants. Most schools have been spreading the exams out over two years, to a greater or lesser extent, and are now not allowed to. So for most schools and children this is a big change, which may affect how easy it is to get good grades, which is what we are discussing.

Copthall, blimey - and mmmmm.....that's interestng......What does the 40% refer to? Yes, that was my impression about iGCSEs, that there were fewer papers, mostly done at the end, with some coursework.

I hope the boards do reduce the number of papers, even if they are longer exams. But won't that take longer than the all-terminal change - so a group of children will be caught in the middle with loads of papers because they are sitting exams that were designed to be done under a different system?

Copthallresident Sat 09-Mar-13 12:12:15

Tired At a school where normally the vast majority get A*/ A last year the vast majority got A/B, the previous year 3% got Bs, last year it was 23%. the previous year 53% got A*, last year it was 35%. I would say that every pupil got a grade lower, and that was with the vast majority having had their coursework (40% of the marks ) marked A*. The Wycombe Abbey Head went public and I know other local indie Heads have been open with parents about it.

I suppose that we should qualify our advice that it is no more difficult, or easy, to get good grades these days than it was in the past provided pupils work hard and are taught well, with unless of course they are affected by the random effects of Gove's political meddling..........

Copthallresident Sat 09-Mar-13 12:22:00

I should say that there is a group, maybe 5, in their year of serious attention seeking pupils who unusually for the school don't work hard, so you would have expected some deflation but amongst that 23% were a lot of very hard working DCs who were predicted A*, are now studying English Literature at A level and have hopes of studying it at uni........

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 14:19:14

Goodness me, how very upsetting for everyone. Thank you for explaining.

If this happened all over though, wouldn't universities drop their grade requirements, so from that POV it would sort of balance out?

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 14:24:02

“The goalposts are being shifted but not necessarily by someone with a valid GPS.”

Marvellous quote from that Telegraph article!

Did anyone see the HMC report about how poor marking and grading standards are? The teaching unions and so on picked it up and ran with it because (whatever you think of them) many of these schools have a stable/defined intake, so when they report great and random variation it is a red flag.

mummytime Sat 09-Mar-13 14:30:13

If Universities did drop their grades it would be a good thing. From what I have seen looking for my son; lots of Universities want AAA or AAA* or above; a few will accept on a few D's and E's; BUT there is virtually no-one who will take students with B's and C's. Which is ridiculous, there are plenty of people who could well cope with the right Degree course but might not have got the best A'levels.

creamteas Sat 09-Mar-13 14:48:31

Mummy Part of the problem is that the leagues tables use entry grades as part of the calculation. So if you want an an easy way for unis to go up 20/30 places you raise your entry criteria!

But there are plenty of decent unis for students with Bs & Cs. Some of them are sneered at on MN, but in RL, the students often do well and get the same sort of graduate jobs as those asking for As...

pollypandemonium Sun 10-Mar-13 23:38:09

I think the process of learning is so much easier today because we are not reliant on books. Children learn well from videos, utube clips, interactive whiteboards, recordings of voices etc. If we had this multimedia learning in our day I would probably have had a lot more good grades. DD seems to do no homework but seems to know everything - she just absorbs it.

So I don't think there is more competition because children are working harder and their parents are pushier, I think the baseline is naturally higher because it's easier to learn stuff.

But I do get concerned about their ability to read and digest things properly. If the government ever feels the need to get tighter on that aspect of education (comprehension, writing things in your own words, analysis etc) we will be in trouble.

tiredaftertwo Mon 11-Mar-13 07:53:47

Polly, how old is your dd?

MadAboutHotChoc Tue 19-Mar-13 14:37:31

I used to think that GCSEs are much easier than O levels - now that my very bright and able DC is in the middle of his GCSES, we all can see how much pressure they are being put under thanks to CAs. When I was doing my O levels, I didn't give these much thought and never felt pressurised until it was time to do the exams.

RiversideMum Sun 24-Mar-13 08:19:50

I went to a top girls grammar and was bored stiff, couldn't be bothered to learn stuff off by heart and got Bs and Cs for my O levels. There were not many girls who got all As. None of the girls who eventually got into Oxbridge got all As for O level. There seemed to be a received wisdom at the time that O levels were about rote learning and A levels needed intellect. Looking at my DD's work, lots of the ways of approaching A level back then have filtered down to GCSE. Much more thinking rather than regurgitating.

In my DDs year at her comp, there were 37 DCs who got more than 8 As. I know this because they got prizes! 3 DCs got 13 A*s.

Too much has changed for comparison to be made. No % grade allocations. Change in structure of courses. League tables. Better teaching. DCs know much better what is expected ... it's not all about dumbing down and grade inflation. I know that my DD worked much harder than I ever did to get her results last summer.

Idratherbemuckingout Mon 25-Mar-13 16:47:29

I took my O levels back in 1974 (when grades 1 to 6 were passes) and when my sister took them in 1976 it had become A to C was a pass but they were still GCEs not GCSEs.
My mum was by then teaching at the school and she had a breakdown name by name of all the pupils in my sister's year and all their individual results. My sister and I went over them with great interest as these were not generally available usually.
We had been at a grammar school that had recently gone co-educational with the boys (the year before) and was about to go comprehensive with its first intake that year I think.
It was very noticeable that despite being a high achieving grammar school in a top end residential area of a medium sized and very prosperous country town (with a good catchment area due to the types of jobs available locally) there were not great handfuls of As being won.
It seemed there was a handful of boys who had got virtually straight As but the rest of the boys had performed considerably less well.
Then amongst the girls (handily the chart was laid out with boys and girls separated) there were more that had done well but hardly any who could compare with the few boys who had excelled.
I knew the girls and boys who had done well and they were by far and away the brightest of their year group or the hardest working or probably both.
My sister got 6 grade As I think and 3 others.
She is a very hard worker and pretty bright.
I think grammar schools then took the top 15 per cent of children who had passed the 11+ exams but that did not mean all were high flyers. There were four classes in the girls grammar school (and I suppose four in the boys) and of these two were considered the top streams but we were streamed for most subjects anyway. I think the two top sets did Latin but I am not sure.
Anyway, the point of this long and rambling reply is that yes, it WAS very unusual then to get a string of A grades and yes, it has got much easier.
Before anyone who disagrees comes down on me like a ton of bricks let me point out how the modern GCSE works and why it differs from the old O level.
1. The old O level was an exam aimed at the top 15 percent of the school year and as such contained work set to that standard throughout.
2. The modern GCSE is a cobbling together of the old CSE and GCE and as such is aimed at ALL pupils taking the exam.
3. You might well point out that there is a tier system. And be right. But the SATS papers and GCSEs are all constructed using the same set of questions. If you are taking a Foundation Tier Maths exam for instance there will be some of the easier questions from the Higher Tier at the end of it.
4. On the Higher Tier paper there will be a certain proportion of questions aimed at the lowest grade and so on up to the top grade. If you compare the proportions with the grade boundaries something will become glaringly obvious. IF YOU DO WELL ENOUGH IN THE EASIER PARTS YOU CAN GET A GRADE THAT IS ACTUALLY HIGHER THAN YOUR PERFORMANCE WOULD SUGGEST. In other words you can get an A star or an A without having to complete the whole section that is set at that grade.
This would lead to the conclusion that the mass of As and A stars achieved do not actually recognise achievement at that level.

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