Revaluing a debased currency

Recent news: Cambridge university to require higher A-level grades, including a newly-minted A* grade.  Politically-correct establishment (“mediocrity for all”) protests feebly about discriminating against pupils from state schools.

Speaking as someone who went from a big state school[1] straight to Cambridge, I feel slightly qualified to pontificate on this subject.  My schooling made me unambiguously an unprivileged child, and I assumed my acceptance at Cambridge was based on merit.  That’s exactly what the Politically Correct want to see more of.  Isn’t it?

So what enabled me to make that jump?  It was two things: one economic (student grants), the other academic (entrance exams).  The latter was crucial, because the general exams taken by everyone at 18 were wholly inadequate: anyone with half-serious aspirations to Cambridge or other well-regarded universities could expect to get 96-100%, in exams where a shameful 65% would get you the top grades.  If you base entrance on A-levels, it’s a lottery tending towards Mao’s China.

That was 30 years ago.  Since then it’s got worse, as evidenced by the ever-rising numbers of top grades awarded[2].  I’d certainly have welcomed a less-devalued top grade, and I’m sure the current generation of Cambridge candidates at comprehensive schools do likewise.  Even if some who purport to speak on their behalf don’t agree.

I took the Cambridge entrance exam in (IIRC) January of my final year at school.  In sharp contrast to the A-levels, I found it genuinely challenging and was not certain of success.  Later at Cambridge, I recollect a conversation with a contemporary who found even that exam far too easy, and who attributed that to the Cambridge-focussed coaching he’d had at his (fee-paying) school.  If he was right, then the PC whingers may have a genuine point, that the exams were an unfair advantage to some privileged candidates.  So what should – or can – the University[3] do about it?

Well, I happen to know someone who is in his final year at school and is a candidate for Cambridge this year.  Like every bright youngster, he too finds the A-levels far too easy.  But he too is taking an entrance exam.  Just one crucial change from my day: the exam has moved from January to July, after the end of the school year.  Before it, the candidates get an intensive couple of weeks coaching at Cambridge, so they’re all prepared for it!

It’s hard to see what more anyone could do to level the playing field.  I guess the PC whingers are just unhappy that it could be levelled upwards based on academic criteria, rather than downwards to a lottery.  Let me commend The Gondoliers to them: WS Gilbert in 1889 saw the absurdity of levelling society by decree!  Come to think of it, that’d make good reading for today’s economists and bankers too.

[1] A “comprehensive” – an invention of the socialist agenda of the 1960s that replaced selection at 11 based on IQ, and survives to this day.  Most children go to comprehensive schools from age 11 to 16 or 18, but aspirational parents look down on them and try very hard to avoid them.

[2] No, I’m not saying it’s got easier since my time (I’ve no idea if it has).  Just that its abject failure to distinguish the sheep from the goats has got ever worse.

[3] Or rather the colleges, who each manage their own admissions.

Posted on March 17, 2009, in education, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Speaking as someone who applied from a state school to Cambridge and didn’t go (despite getting 3 A-grades), I feel slightly qualified to pontificate on this subject too.

    When I applied a bit over 15 years ago, the January Cambridge entrance exam (STEP) was still in use and the teachers at my state school IIRC refused to support it. One made a throw-away comment that they didn’t think they could do well in it, but I think the private school coaching effect was the real reason. STEP favoured the private and the posher state schools and a kid like me from a village ex-secondary-modern didn’t have much chance with it.

    As it happened, the real problem with applying to Cambridge was the assumptions of others. I visited for interview and hated it, but admissions tutors at several other universities assumed that Cambridge would be my first choice, while teachers at school also just assumed that I’d pick Cambridge. In the end, I got an easy way out: not doing STEP helped get me put into the pool (the “play-offs” of the Cambridge application system, where you get asked to visit colleges who haven’t filled their subject places because their tutors are bizarre – I met more state school applicants during the pool interviews than I did in two visits in the main applications) and then I wasn’t picked from the pool.

    I went somewhere more relaxed and open and got first-class honours. Now, with hindsight, I think the first degree was probably worthwhile for me, but I’m not sure I’d’ve thought the same if I’d been post-grants and Cambridge would probably have been a disasterous culture-clash.

    As a nation, I think we could do better than our current universities, but I wouldn’t want to be the person who designs the new model or implements the reform!

  1. Pingback: A generation on « niq’s soapbox

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