Rector’s eNews – 18 August 2021/ Rector's eNews
As the A Block boys settle to writing their Trial Examinations this week, the A Level and GSCE results, reflecting the endeavours of pupils at the age of 18 and 16 respectively have been announced in the UK. Exactly as I expected, they were the “best ever” at practically every school across the country. Why was that the expected outcome? It is precisely because pupils’ own teachers were able to rank them and apportion marks to them as a result of the Covid pandemic interrupting their studies and because last year an algorithm applied to bring the results down to more realistic outcomes ended up creating an uproar or worse with pupils and parents protesting about “the system”. Teachers’ evaluations of their pupils were then introduced again in this academic year, raising the results to “best ever” levels and, naturally, there is widespread satisfaction amongst pupils and their parents.
It is astonishing to me that these results which are dependent on the teachers’ evaluation of students will stand as the determinant of success in a school career or, in the case of GSCEs, a milestone in it. What teacher would not want his pupil to succeed? Who would rather give a B than an A? What, indeed, are the implications of a whole cohort going on from school with results which demonstrate considerable grade inflation over previous years? Which employers will be so obtuse as not to discredit those students vis à vis other year cohorts? How many students will get results that will lead them into university degrees for which they are not really suited?
I am writing on this topic today not to focus on what for some people is utterly irrelevant since it is an issue in a country halfway across the world, but to draw attention to what an examination system should offer. Firstly, an examination system should be one which is reliable in distinguishing those with exceptional ability from those who are good students and then those who are average and below that level. If everybody were to achieve an A for each subject, then you might distrust the system. Secondly, it should offer, through its subjects, significant interest to the students: the content of subjects should inspire further thought and study and, hopefully lifelong fascination with a subject. Thirdly, it should encompass variety. In a school setting, for example, if a system permitted the study only of numerate subjects or only of the arts, perhaps we would not consider it to be educating all aspects of the individual in a balanced way. Fourthly, it should prepare one for the next stage of one’s academic career and allow one to proceed to that stage on a good footing and with the capacity to move up a level with confidence alongside the best in the country or the world.
So where does the Independent Examination Board, the IEB, written by our Michaelhouse boys on leaving school, stand on these criteria? Firstly, we find it essentially a reliable examination system in that those who are very able in each particular subject, year on year, have that ability reflected with correspondingly lower results for those who are less able. The examination system is strict and well-controlled; for example, a video recording is taken of each examination so that any irregularities are able to be investigated. There are clear criteria for the construction of examination papers and the distribution of them. Though there are a few exceptions to this rule, it is generally the case that the results our boys achieve are expected by the school and reflect their ability.
Secondly, the nature of the courses studied are generally interesting and relevant. The subject coordinators and examiners amend courses to take into account matters of national or world importance and boys leave school in an interest in many subjects.
Thirdly, the IEB requires a number of subjects to be studied with some mandatory ones too: so, a student must take English, Mathematics and an additional language and, of course, some other subjects to attain an overall matriculation. Lastly, armed with a successful IEB Bachelor’s Certificate, our students move on to top universities in South Africa or abroad: for the majority of our boys, a path to UCT, Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria or Witwatersrand University is the norm with just under 20% setting their sights on universities such as Exeter, Durham, Edinburgh and St Andrew’s (all top 10 universities in the UK) or colleges such as Princeton, UPenn or NYU in the United States. The AP (Advanced Programme) in English, Mathematics and Physics is usually taken by those boys seeking admission to an international university and is usually a requirement for such a university. The IEB with AP subjects has been benchmarked against the A Levels by Cambridge University, whilst Oxford doesn’t not specifically require AP subjects, but looks for demonstrated excellence in Olympiads and other similar areas.
Reverting to the topic of A Levels, when I arrived as a Head in the UK in 2002, the great cry was that A Levels were being devalued and were no longer a good yardstick of academic prowess. Grade inflation became a topic of discussion at virtually every meeting of Heads and, ultimately, an A* was introduced to differentiate between the very top performers and those who were good A candidates because the number of As had risen to such an extent that they were no longer thought to reflect fairly the worth of the very top academic performers. Schools such as mine began to look to the International Baccalaureate (IB) as being a much better determinant of ability and a much more satisfactory examination in other respects and, increasingly, students moved across from A Levels to the IB which, similar to the IEB, requires the study of a broader curriculum (ie six subjects), as opposed to the three that are generally taken at A Level. I do not want to place a “jinx” on our current matriculants, but there is often a tendency to think that what happens abroad is necessarily better than what happens in this country. I think the IEB can hold its head up amongst other examination systems; it is rigorous which certainly fulfils the criteria which I would lay down for an effective examination system and our boys with good results are able to move on to the best universities in South Africa and the world.