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‘Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared,' declared the Reverend Charles Colton almost two centuries ago, ‘for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.' Today's GCSE and A level candidates would do well to bear the clergyman's bon mot in mind as they receive their results. For contrary to the impression sometimes given in the annual dumbing-down debate, the central reality of modern British education is not the intellectual inadequacy of candidates, for which no credible evidence has been produced, but the often mind-numbing stupidity of the educational establishment, for which the evidence is clear and overwhelming.

In fact, to anyone familiar with what candidates are subjected to as they are prodded and poked through today's education ‘system', talk of falling standards and grade inflation, however plausible as a matter of plain arithmetic, inevitably misses the point. For over the last couple of decades a revolution has taken place in the character of public exams, especially of A levels; and since what is tested now is fundamentally different from what was tested twenty years ago, any comparison of grades over that period is bound to be meaningless.

If it is hard for those of us who are not teachers or examiners to keep up with the changes, it's perhaps just as difficult for the people intimately involved to grasp the cumulative effect of the policies they are required to implement year by year, let alone to make their concerns heard above the chorus of official blandishments. Reports are periodically dispatched from the front line, most recently The Corruption of the Curriculum, published by the think tank Civitas; and occasionally an examiner or headteacher who no longer fears for his or her job will blow the whistle. But the great majority keep their heads down, waiting for retirement, and nothing can prepare the uninitiated adult for the sheer crassness of what our young people are routinely forced to endure.

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Michael Sweeney
September 30th, 2008
11:09 PM
I am very sympathetic to the writer's message. However, I obtained an 'A' grade for history at A level in 1984 but understood the dissolution of the monasteries far more from CJ Sansom's novels than Geoffrey Elton. I recall we learned much about Fascism and nothing about the British Empire (which I believe had an immense influence on the world as it is today - I am regularly asked why does everybody speak English from children and foreigners alike) as well as nothing about Wellington or Nelson. I studied English at University, but Milton was never introduced to us on any curriculum. There is a real problem that there is so much more history and literature than there was 50 years ago - more published works, different approaches to subject matter (Stalingrad and Kursk are now regarded as more pivotal than D-Day for example). But the broad sweep of a subject can be taught - it isn't, and compounds our ignorance. Everybody should be compelled to read the Tempest though.

William Jolliffe
August 25th, 2008
1:08 PM
This article is excellent in substance and presentation. It informs about failing education today, in a concise style which should shame many teachers & journalists today. Mr Shaw has struck a blow for excellence by what he states and how he writes. PS it is hard to read the word 'TYPE' in the captcha below.

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