Tag Archives: Labour Party

A Levels, skewing distribution curves, and education for all

They have done it again. The students of UK ( OK, England and Wales ) have had another record year of passing their A Levels. For those not lucky enough to have gone through this process, these are exams taken by mostly 18 year olds to determine if they can qualify for a place at University.

The concern for me, and many others, is how can every year be a record year ? This year 27% of students attained an A or A* pass ( or for a different report on the same, try Sky News ). There is talk of dumbing down the results or over specialisation, and to a great extent I agree with that assertion. I see our own son, and am sometimes amazed at what he was not taught at school in subjects that I know well and did for A level myself.

But what really made me put fingers on keyboard again was an interview with Ed Balls, candidate for the Labour Party Leadership here in the UK, and ex-Education minister, on the BBC’s Newsnight last night ( 18 August ).

He was asked about how the education system, for which he and the Labour Party government had increased the budget dramatically, had failed the kids not fortunate enough to go to a private or grammar school ( parents not rich enough, or kids not passing the selective entrance exam ).

He said that they had made the A* grade so that the brightest and most able students could standout. This of course was necessary because with a normal distribution curve, there would never be 27% of anything getting top of anything, and there must be a fairly average normal distribution curve in student’s abilities ( most measurements of human endeavours will show a regular normal, or poisson, distribution curve ). Fine, I like that. Especially as my son got straight A’s with no sweat, and even got more than 90% in all of his subjects. To give anyone with 70% or more the same rating, seems to undervalue a 90% mark by some way. So yes, an A* would be a great idea, even though it means grade inflation, which I do not think is a good think. Although, if it has the effect of spreading the attainment curve to a more realistic shape – you know, most people will attain 50% kind of curve – then that may actually be a good thing. Now that would be OK if the Universities looked at A* students, and took them on, as they are the best students in the UK at the moment.

However, Mr Balls, went on to explain that he had told the Universities NOT to choose students on the A* status ! Sorry. Run that by me again. You invented A* grades to show the best students, and then tell Universities and colleges not to use this as a measure of their student intake ?

( for those with a UK IP address, use the BBC iPlayer to see the interview if you like. Sorry, it’s  not available to the rest of the world though as you don’t pay the TV Licence 🙂 ).

Oh gee. Politicians can be so stuck up their own dogma they completely lose sight of any rational thought.

I’m sorry, but statistically, there is a wide variation of academic ability in the general population. We know that to be true. Always has been.

Some people make excellent bricklayers. They have a feel for the material, they have a perfect eye, and they can make a building look stunning through their skills. ( and I’m a tad jealous, as although I like bricklaying, and am not bad at it, I can’t get that extra 10% to gain perfection ). Others can do intensely complex thought experiments on how the universe behaves. Others can deliver performances on stage that make you cry. All skills, all valuable to a mixed society.

So why does the education system not encourage these wide range of skills ? Why does the education system insist that 50% of 18 years old go to University ?

I believe the answer is that it is just too hard for a politician to say the logical thing : some people are better at some things than others.