‘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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