A-Level students don’t have to worry about Covid-19 anymore; the country is convinced they’re plagued by another contagion. That is, a fresh bout of laziness forcing the government to dial down exam pressure and make Sixth Form a breeze.

But amidst this mad political squabble over children’s qualifications, people seem to have forgotten the tough and determined experiences of the very students they intend to belittle.


Unattainable exam excellence

According to a survey conducted by the Sunday Times, 41 per cent of participants believed A-Levels have gotten easier, compared to a measly 9 per cent concluding they’ve gotten harder.

Participants aged 18-24, however, were far more likely to say exams have gotten harder, totalling at 19 per cent. This is no coincidental divide. An analysis of this could go on and on. Wash away all the false claims and clown make-up of these governmental figures, and you realise people writing these laws will never have to go through the horror of taking these reformed A-Levels.

They will never sit on a small, wobbling table in a damp gymnasium and have their hands shake as they scribble out answers on a paper designed to trip them up. Nor will they face the barrage of complaints and spiteful comments against them when their results come out higher than ever before.

So why should they be the ones to dictate how hard A-Level examinations should become? A culture of mobile phones and instant entertainment has not suddenly polluted young people into becoming idle. Most students don’t sit in puddles of their own drool and prop their feet up on stacks of unopened textbooks, impatiently awaiting their A*s. Good grades are harder to maintain than getting a flock of disgruntled politicians to agree on something. In fact, since 2008, the distribution of grades achieved has been almost static — consistently holding students in scarily high expectations.

A deterioration of merit

The one leg that this idea of easy A-Levels has to stand on is a study conducted by Loughborough University, concluding that the standards of taking A-Levels have been in gradual decline since the 1960s. It’s most definitely true that a higher percentage of graduates are achieving the infamous, controversial A and A* grades. But this does not immediately point huge, neon signs at the inherent laziness of upcoming students.

For one, this decline only took place between the 1960s and 1990s, leaving a 30-year gap in which no decrease in standards took place. That’s enough years for someone to graduate, claw their way up the political career path and sit idly while complaining that better grades and higher university admissions is the fault of a rowdy and ungrateful generation.

Considering the worrying estimate of 3,000 students a year calling Childline with extreme cases of exam anxiety and stress, it’s easy to conclude that the pressures and expectations placed on aspiring A-Level students have not decreased despite this myth of easy exams.

But, it’s simpler to disregard the mental wellbeing of an entire generation in favour of an abundance of statistics.

The growth of expectations

Grade inflation is an undeniable phenomenon. With the 1987 grade allocation quotas being abolished, the sharp increase in students being awarded Bs and above was evident. Take the 17.7 per cnet increase in achievement of A or A* grades between 1982 and 2012.

Now with a grade system neither completely norm-referenced or criterion-referenced, it’s become commonplace to assume governments are inflating the number of higher grades achieved to counteract dumber and dumber students lumbering their way into Sixth Form. All in the name of international recognition and a Gold Star for their DIY unemployment solution.

But this washed-out manner of observing the statistics does not address the growth of university applications, and how this is tightening grade standards like an uncomfortable noose around the neck of students. There has been a net increase of approximately 301,000 university applications between 1994 and 2019. That’s 301,000 excuses for universities to be pickier, and fall into the trap of creating excessive pressure on young people.

Celebrating success

The increasing availability of knowledge and resources has opened the opportunity of higher education to minorities and lower-income households otherwise historically refused access to qualifications, paving the way for an economy of equality. But the cycle is vicious. Though more students can apply, top universities become stricter in their admissions, and suddenly the expectation is to score higher and higher.

More and more students can now march their way through A-Levels with confident stride. Pick up a sparkler and rejoice in that fact. Don’t use it as another way to berate the young for a system they do not control.

Education is one of the only things in the economy that trickles down successfully. You can see with the economic rise of South Korea and Japan — countries somewhat devoid of those tasty natural resources to fatten up their wallet — and how this boils down to a realisation that, ‘oh dear, maybe we should be helping our citizens develop mentally instead of stepping on them for outdoing us?’

As a country, our goal should be exactly that. We must reduce suffering and make things a little easier for the next in-line, even if that means admitting the upcoming generations might just outshine us.