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Category archive: Examinations

Monday July 14 2008

Carlin Romano, who teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about honorary degrees, in The Chronicle Review.  He begings his piece by arguing that honorary degrees do nothing for universities.  He quotes Jacques Barzun, who says: “the honorary degree as now commonly dealt out has lost its point”, and: “The Chairman of the Board of General Aphrodisiacs may be all that is said of him in the citation, but it is not a judgment on which the university should set its seal.” Universities should stick to rewarding measurable academic excellence.  MIT and Harvard eke out their existences without awarding any such degrees.  Others should follow their example, says Romano.

But then he gets to the matter of Robert Mugabe.


Yet for all this history and perspective, indicating that honorary degrees and their nullifications amount to tempests in teapots, the peculiar biography of Robert Mugabe makes the matter more complicated. Recent journalistic attention to Zimbabwe’s tragedies, welcome as it is, has provided little context about the man causing them. For that, we’re fortunate to have three incisive books on him published in the last decade: Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs, 2002); Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe, by David Blair (Continuum, 2002); and Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, by Stephen Chan (University of Michigan Press, 2003).

All paint a portrait of Mugabe that may surprise non-Africa hands ignorant of his prepresidential life. Born in the Jesuit mission station of Kutama on February 21, 1924, the third of six children in a family abandoned by his father (a dyspeptic carpenter who moved 300 miles away and took another wife), young Mugabe could not have been more bookish as he rose to become a teacher.

“All accounts describe him in the same words,” writes Blair, “diligent, quiet, studious, introverted.” Mugabe shunned smoking and drinking alcohol and “excelled academically” at every institution he attended, including South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, the hotbed of African nationalism from which Nelson Mandela had been expelled earlier. During Mugabe’s 11 years of imprisonment, from 1963 to 1974, under Zimbabwe’s white-ruled predecessor state of Rhodesia, the future president enrolled in University of London correspondence courses and earned four degrees — a master’s degree in economics, a bachelor’s degree in administration, and two law degrees — to go with the three bachelor’s degrees he already possessed, in economics, education, and history and literature.

Meredith writes of how Mugabe in prison “resumed his studies with fierce dedication, his books piled on both sides of his bed.” The prisoner’s late wife, Sally Hayfron, then living in London, copied out whole volumes by hand and posted them as letters to her husband. When Mugabe finally won release from prison, in November 1974, he held seven academic degrees.

So even now, after more than three decades in which the former Marxist revolutionary leader — seen as conciliatory toward opponents at Zimbabwe’s independence — has evolved into a murderous autocrat, Mugabe’s lust for academic credibility may endure. In the paranoid recesses of Mugabe’s octogenarian brain, stripping him of degrees may exact a toll few can imagine.

In which case, it’s probably time for Michigan State University, which doled out an honorary doctorate to Mugabe in 1990, to step up. And what about those seven earned degrees? Can a university revoke degrees earned in a correspondence course? How? By sending Mugabe a letter? Why not leave him only the eighth academic laurel he famously boasts of — “a degree in violence”?

Now, after Zimbabwe’s latest parody of democracy, the man once called “Satan’s apostle” by his also-ruthless white predecessor stands as the re-elected president of Zimbabwe. If things keep going as they’re going, however, Mugabe can forget about retiring to one of those handsomely endowed chairs at a Florida university, the sort that draw Oxford dons seeking to up their pay in a sunny place.

He simply won’t have the credentials.

A degree in education.  How about that?

The idea of stripping Mugabe of his various degrees, honorary and real, was causing much mockery on Mock The Week, when I watched the latest manifestation of it a few days ago, as did England refusing to play cricket against Zimbabwe next year.  But it would appear that even if taking his degrees away won’t now do anything to stop Mugabe, this might cause him some small degree (so to speak) of hurt.

More Mugabe honorary degree complaint here.

Thursday July 03 2008

A current blog favourite of mine is the Spectator Coffee House blog, and they laugh at Ed Balls’s latest pronouncements, but actually most of what he says sounds not that ridiculous to me, although his notion of kids being tested without them even realising it does seem somewhat fanciful.  But I think he mostly emerges quite well from this interview, in contrast to how he lets himself look in this story.  Kindness and gentleness are all very well for schools, but when Ed Balls is in a hurry, forget about that.

As I often feel with incompetent socialist politicians, I think to myself, this man might have made a quite capable headmaster, and might actually have done some good, instead of either raging impotently at the ills of the institutions that he supposedly controls, or actually barging in to improve them, and thereby making them worse.

Anyway, the political cycle is such that it is rapidly ceasing to matter what Ed Balls thinks.  And you sense that even the New Statesman now realises this.

For an anti-Balls view that is serious rather than mocking, read the first comment at the NS:

My God, Ed Balls is employing some appalling sophistry with regard to SATs. Over the past 15 years or so, the push to ever more prescriptive curricula and more measurement has created huge amounts of performance anxiety in the education system. And, worst of all, is removing professional autonomy from educators. Children are not being taught how to think or question anything, merely pushed through a mechanistic process to turn out the service fodder for the 21st century that employers demand. Judging by recent comments from employers and the levels of literacy of school leavers, even this goal is not being met.

But according to Ed, it’s all the fault of the schools. This is such a transparent attempt to pass the buck that it would be plainly laughable, were it not for the fact that I am afraid he might actually be sincere. ...

But another commenter reacted much as I did:

Balls strikes absolutely the right tone here. He dismisses the media hysteria that seems to attach itself to stories involving children and yet acknowledges the kernel of truth upon which the stories are based. He sounds humane and measured - and, when attacked, manages to avoid sounding defensive.

It would be a good thing if Ball’s tone was replicated throughout the media.

Trouble is, it doesn’t matter how nice Mr Balls is when being interviewed.  He still presides over a nationalised industry in an advanced state of decay, and for that mere niceness is completely beside the point.  No wonder, when not performing to nice lady journalists, he opens car doors in people’s faces (see link above).

Monday June 30 2008


Pupils are being rewarded for writing obscenities in their GCSE English examinations even when it has nothing to do with the question.

One pupil who wrote “f*** off” was given marks for accurate spelling and conveying a meaning successfully.

Key question: how much have they been rewarded.  Well, I would say that 11 percent just for “Fuck off!”, with 3.5 percent extra for the exclamation mark is somewhat excessive.  On the other hand, “off” is a word that frequently gets spelled wrongly, as “of”.  But, on the whole, I don’t favour swearing.

Other examining bodies said that their marking schemes would not reward such language. Edexel said: “If the question was ‘Use a piece of Anglo-Saxon English’, they may get a mark, but if they had just written ‘f*** off’, they may get sanctioned. If it was graphic or violent they may get no mark for that paper.”

Opposition spokesman Nick Gibb said:

“This is fucking ridiculous.”

No.  What he really said was:

“It’s taking the desire for uniformity and consistency to absurd lengths.”

Says Coffee House: You couldn’t make it up, and in order to demonstrate that things ain’t what, correction: are not as, they used to be, also links to this.  Charles Pooter gets all post-modern about it.

Thursday June 26 2008

Here’s an interesting twist on a familiar argument.  This is Terence Kealey writing in yesterday’s Telegraph:

The degree system in British universities is “rotten”, with grades based on “arbitrary and unreliable” measures, says Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the government-sponsored body responsible for maintaining university standards. Not since Gerald Ratner announced that his products were “crap” has a chief executive made such a suicidal remark. In this case it is not true.

Williams’s major complaint is that whereas, 10 years ago, only 45 per cent of students got firsts or upper seconds, now some 60 per cent do. This, he says, reflects grade inflation.

So far so predictable.  Grade inflation.  But of course.

But here comes the surprise:

Actually, because our admissions procedures tend to work well (i.e., we tend to admit only students with appropriate A-levels) 100 per cent of students should be getting firsts or upper seconds. The only students to get lower seconds and thirds should be those who succumb to laziness, drunkenness and the other ills that student flesh is heir to. Since no one reviewing our universities can doubt that the students are more serious than ever, no one need be surprised that their degrees are getting better.

Because the league tables reward universities for awarding firsts and upper seconds, there is, admittedly, pressure to inflate the top grades, but my experience of the examination system in Britain is that underhand practices are uncommon. I hate to sound like a minister or Dr Pangloss, but students are getting better grades because they are working harder. We should be pleased.

So what does Kealey think Williams is up to?  Here’s his answer:

Williams is being political.  The QAA is power-hungry and resents the autonomy our universities have retained in this target-driven world.  He wants more bureaucracy and he wants his QAA to supply it.

The QAA is already too intrusive.  The best universities are in America, yet American higher education bureaucracy is trivial.  There are no external examiners at American universities, for example, and the US equivalents of the QAA are pussy cats – which is why American unversities flourish.

The QAA and other bureaucracies damage higher education because universities flourish only by self-regulation.  Universities do best when they are independent, because scholars are innately self-critical, so only when external agencies displace self-criticism with arbitrary ticks in boxes do standards slip.

It’s the QAA, not our degree classification, that is arbitrary and unreliable.

So there.

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Thursday June 05 2008

A central plank of present education policy is that school excellence can be measured.  But this has always been a dubious assumption and it is becoming more so.

Many parents have always helped with their children’s education, some a great deal.  I know mine did, as did my older brothers and older sister.  So, if someone measured the excellence of what the various schools I went to were doing when I was there, they might have missed the contribution made to my education by my family.  And now, with the inexorable rise of all kinds of out-of-hours clubs and top-up arrangements - like Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday, the two Civitas enterprises where I help out - the process of measuring school excellence becomes even more complicated.

Suppose a regular school has a seriously bad maths teacher.  But suppose there is also a very fine Saturday maths school in the immediate vicinity, to which many of the pupils of the bad maths teacher go, to be rescued from utter maths confusion.  You can easily see how the incompetence of the regular teacher might be missed by the official testing regime.  He might not even realise himself what a crap teacher he really is.  Likewise his school might miss what was really going on.  After all, there are his kids, lots of them learning lots of maths, sailing through their exams.  Hurrah, he’s a great teacher.

The more supplementary privately-paid-for education there is, around the edges of the regular school timetable, the harder it will get for the schools or anybody else to work out how well they are really doing.

So, who should be deciding on school quality?  No prizes for guessing that I think it should be the parents.  At the end of last Tuesday night at Kings Cross Supplementary I had a quick chat with Small Boy’s Mother.  I asked: Am I teaching him anything?  I can’t tell. He is definitely learning things. But it could be you (Small Boy’s Mother is herself a teacher), or his regular school, and not me at all.  Oh yes, said Small Boy’s Mother, he is definitely learning things here.  It isn’t easy to get here, and I wouldn’t keep bringing him and keep paying if it wasn’t doing any good.

Small Boy’s Mother is my personal OFSTED inspector.  A better, less nerve-racking and more efficient version of the real thing, I think.

Tuesday June 03 2008

The Telegraph reports:

GCSEs are “considerably” easier than tests sat 50 years ago as questions are simplified to make them more relevant to modern teenagers, it said.

Reform, an independent think tank, said the traditional emphasis on algebra, arithmetic and geometry has been dropped in favour of questions focusing on real-life situations. It added that pupils can now gain a good grade with fewer than half the marks needed in 1990.

Reform also claimed that the lack of rigour has led to fewer students studying maths at sixth-form and university - leaving the British economy vulnerable to competition from China and India.

So, it would seem that “real-life” situations are not relevant.  Oh dear.

Here‘s what Reform itself has to say about the report.  And here (.pdf) is the report itself.

I’m an individualist about stuff like this.  It may matter to the Prime Minister than Britain’s children are slipping down the international league tables, but an individual child isn’t going to be unemployable merely because he doesn’t have a PhD in maths.  Okay, less rich maybe, but will he starve?

Maybe the answer is much better teachers and much bigger classes.  In other words obscenely high salaries for the best maths teachers in the country.  That’s only going to happen in the private sector.  So I say, eliminate the teaching of maths altogether from state schools (according to the Reform report good progress is already being made along these lines), and tell the parents it’s up to them to buy it elsewhere.  Just kidding.

Or maybe I’m not kidding.  Seriously, maths as showbiz.  If you ran maths classes in huge conference centres, charged a fiver a head per class, packed them in, but wanted them to keep coming back time after time because the show was actually very good - the children liked it and their parents liked it - what would it consist of?

Monday May 19 2008

More about this story.

Via this article in the Times, I found my way to this remarkable sound recording, of an academic at Kingston University, Fiona Barlowe-Brown, urging students lie to Mori polsters about the excellence of their university.  More info about the recording here.

She sounds like a rather fine teacher.  What a tragedy that she has been induced to become a fraudster.

As Niall Ferguson is quoted saying, in this:

It was comical, he added, how much the English exam system resembled the target-driven planned economy of the old Soviet Union in which every last detail was controlled from the centre and based on inadequate information and ideological preoccupations.

“Inadequate” didn’t, and doesn’t, begin to describe the fraudulent and delusional nature of this information.

The point about the Soviet economic system is that good people lied, and for good reasons.  It was not the occasional bad apple who lied.  Everyone lied.  To blame Fiona Barlowe-Brown and her pal for this, and nobody else, is to miss the point entirely.

“Give it a five or your degree with be shit!”
Fraser Nelson (and a commenter) on problems with SATs (and GCSEs)
“Every child emerges with at least two A Levels and three quarters go to university …”
Charles Murray on educational romanticism
Higher paid teachers – bigger classes – better results
What schools provide depends on who is paying and for what
Harry Potter studies
Their funeral?
A sledgehammer to skin a flagship
Home schooling is good even when done by less well educated parents
CCTV could be used in exam rooms
Snuffy says don’t blame the teachers
Carl Honoré on slowing down and mucking about
Mariana Bell talks about Romanian education under Communism
Harry Hutton on nepotism and student writers
A world where everyone knows your GCSE results
Tom Jones didn’t need no education
Don’t mention A levels
Conservative headline
Exam results in South Africa are bad but the exams themselves may actually be quite good
Jon Morrow regrets getting straight A’s
“Market-friendly university without walls …”
Woodhead on GCSEs and on centralisation
Yet another perverse incentive
Perverse incentives