Skip to main content

Are A Levels Getting Easier?

16 August 2012

So it's A Level results day. And the press will be full of the usual debate around standards falling while at the same time parents, teachers and students will be in uproar saying that A Levels are something to be proud of. This happens every single year, has done for, well, basically forever. And always will.

Ok, let's start with this. Kids: you've done well, good on you. You should be proud. We are proud of you. The exams were probably the hardest thing you've ever done. Celebrate. Enjoy life.

But... here's the thing. I'm sitting here with the A Level mathematics papers from 2012, 1992 and 1972.

Is the paper from 2012 easier?  Yes.

Much easier infact.

In terms of mathematics, in terms of being a mathematician, the problems are simply not as demanding. They do not require the same level of thought, they do not require the same understanding of interrelated concepts, they do not even cover material at the same level of difficulty (some bits do, granted).

The papers are easier. It really is undeniable.

But are A Levels easier that they used to be?  No.

Seems like a contradiction, I know. But it's about the journey. It's about the preparation and readiness.

For the kids who sat the 2012 paper, they were every bit as daunting and demanding, every bit as challenging and as difficult. Their triumph was every bit as great.  The A Level was not easier.

Because their experience until that point had readied them only for that level of paper. They would not be able to do the 1972 paper, not because the paper is more difficult (which it most certainly is), but because the educational experience they had encountered throughout their schooling had set the bar much lower.

There are many reasons for this. For one, the curriculum is much broader now and mathematics is being used to serve many more purposes, so the time for really getting to grips with the subject is less.  It's not a dumbing down of mathematics as such, more a replacing mathematics with something considered more appropriate to the masses.

A Level mathematics is an easier paper now. Sorry, but it is.

But imagine a moment, if you will, you are taking part in a high jump competition. Suppose your entire build up to the competition was practising jumping bars set at 1 metre. Your competitor on the other hand had been practising bars set at 2 metres. At the competition you are asked to jump 2.1 metres. You'd have no chance... all of your routines would be useless... it is the experience leading up to the challenge that matters.

Should A Level mathematics be more difficult? I'm not sure. Rather depends on what you want it to achieve. If it is a qualification that is supposed to ready you for a mathematics degree, then heck yes, it should. If on the other hand we want it to serve as something more diverse, then perhaps not.  As a mathematician, I'm biased.  I'd go for a much more rigorous curriculum and demanding exam.

But if it should be more difficult, this means tracking the mathematics curriculum all the way back in to primary and setting the bar much, much higher so that it is actually possible to achieve on a much more difficult exam come Year 13.

Let me just end by saying, though, to all those who got their results today: well done. Your achievement is equally as great as those in 1972 and don't let any sod tell you any different.