The test

No, not the 5th and Final Test. Although I am on my way there as I type this. I am thinking about the tests undergone by today’s A level students.

I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous about my A level results way back when. I was. Very. I had been in prison, was less than half way through my probation and could only be keenly aware that A levels and University were the last best hope for Our Hero.

My generation (I am going back 32 years to the summer of 77) had certain advantages of course. Neither we (nor our parents) were expected to pay tuition fees or take out crippling loans. A generous enough grant was a matter of course, regardless of parental means. To fast forward for a moment, the Dean of my college addressed my freshers year thus: “Gentlemen” (it was an all male institution in those days), “there is an increasing tendency for undergraduates to seek employment in the vacations. We really deprecate this and urgently recommend you use your vacations to read. Read generally, not specifically to your degree. A walking tour of the Alps in summer is always agreeable.” Can you imagine the gales of derisive laughter that would follow such a pronouncement today? Never mind the vacs, students have to work in term time these days.

The real advantage we had, however, is that when we found out our results, there wasn’t a local news team hanging around to record our whoops of joy or howls of disappointment. Nor did we have to tolerate every nuance of our averaged results nationwide being skewed, used and abused by politicians, columnists and cultural commentators keen to demonstrate how stupid, shallow, undereducated and unfit for higher education we all were. How today’s young cope with such encroachments on their dignity I cannot imagine.

Of course August is traditionally called the Silly Season in journalism. Parliament’s out, movers and shakers are on holiday, the editor’s on someone powerful’s yacht and the subs and juniors are in charge. If you’re a student hanging on the UCAS phone line while cameras point at you, don’t forget to ask the journalist behind the camera what their A level grades were.

Heigh ho, taxi’s drawn up outside the Oval’s main entrance. A great ground. Did you know it belonged to the Prince of Wales?

Pip pip,

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41 comments on “The test”

  1. nonoyesyes says:

    I find I am suddenly logged in I had sent my reply over on Twitter because page would not load!
    Anyway; a very REAL look into the modern system of the road to ‘achievement’ for today’s kids…
    I will only add here (because I wrote it up over on the twitter) that I am very glad I am NOT in school systems today!
    Thank you for a intelligent and very real blog on this….
    ((what a great idea re “don’t forget to ask the journalist behind the camera what their A level grades were.”


  2. James Thomson says:

    I’m of the same generation as you, Stephen. My grant was means tested. I got the minimum – the paltry (even then) amount of £69 per term. The theory was that one’s beloved parents were meant to contribute adequately out of the tax savings they made as a result of one being in full-time education. That was the theory. But as the late, great Richard Feynman used to din into his students: if the theory is contradicted by experiment or observation, then the theory is WRONG. Never a truer word spoken. Therefore, I had to work all but two weeks of the vacs, just to make ends meet. Mind you, I was pretty good with money in those days, so I left uni with about a fiver in my pocket. And no debts.

  3. craig.brown says:

    Imagine the horror of undergoing all of the above but with the added complication of being a “Mature” student! Of course we have to endure all of the usual pains and anxieties with the added notion of being labled as “Are you really a student?”. On top of this, there are more complications of being able to locate adequate jobs that can help towards the costs of travel and living, as it is not usually possible for mature students to stay in halls, due to other family ties. Mature students have to complete an “Are you wise enough” course, known as “Access”, to prove that our long time away from education has not left us unable to piece together a 16 year olds way of thinking!
    So all that was left of the excitment of progression through Uni, is now a cloudy haze of belittlement and lack of self belief. Thanks education!! (Of course this is light hearted and I am eager to get stuck in!)

  4. peterPanama says:

    Imagine having just graduated with a First Class Honours from a middle-of-the-road university and not being able to secure a job interview, let alone a job.

    Not only am I now the owner of quite a substantial sum of debt, I’m being pitted against graduates of yesteryear in a battle of resumés. Of course, the tide will turn; just not now when I sodding well need it to!


  5. Alex_Hill85 says:

    Thank you for another blog. It’s very nice to hear that coming from a baby boomer. I’m a young, working, student from Australia & am getting tired of the “young people today don’t know how lucky they are” speech. It’s reassuring that not everybody thinks like this.
    Thank you again,

  6. Janecaro says:

    Frankly, I wonder how it is that every year the grades results get better and better, but the knowledge of school/university leavers is diminishing. My children left school in the 80’s, and even then I was getting alarmed at the way education was dumbing down to suit the needs of pupils – eg: “We don’t teach geography as it used to be, because we found pupils got bored” ! So, the subject matter was changed to suit the boredom threshold of the child ! By the 90’s, going through application forms and giving interviews, I was appalled at the ignorance of school leavers. So, all those poor children waiting for results now, could their grades possibly match the significance of yesteryear ? No chance.

  7. serendipitous says:

    Thanks for the good sense, again. Mr. Fry.
    Exams are a very flawed and, for some, destructive form of test. So much can hang on the results. Most of the young people I’ve encountered (my own and quite a few subsequent generations) worked hard and deserved their successes. Hard work and deserving success are not the characteristics of any age group, old or young. The young do have wonderful energy, vibrancy, beauty and enthusiasm. Heck! They are young and should enjoy it while they can and not be badgered by press, government, statistics or general kill-joys!

  8. Aurora says:

    Oh Dear Mr. Fry, as always, you expressed a very interesting point of view, supported by your personal experience and the remind of a grate soul.
    I live in a country, Italy, that inspite of his millenarian culture (forgive my english),the institution as University do not ensure the “doctors”,as we are called, to keep our background culture alive.
    What is surprising about my country is that the Litterary patrimonium and the artistic one, are considered as “second hand” sectors, not so important.
    I have a degree in “History of italian theater”, and everybody think I’m and actress or else,but inspite of the name “we can’t do anything” all is based on theory,so we are “forced” to pay private acting lessons or creative writing classes …and some times the masters are people from “Big Brother” …(true story!).
    I do write since I was 16,I started to write plays when I was 21 (if memory serves) and now I’m 24, I have a degree, but I really don’t know what I can or can’t do!Nobody told me how to play ecc… The problem is that there are thousends of people like me,and I know many of them.
    The only alternative we have is to create a critic megazine, but the burocracy, and some kind of editors mafia makes this quite difficult and very expensive.
    For this reason I have to enter Police (Carabinieri) to rise some money, and fighting against my inner sensibility that the Arts expanded in me.
    The thing is long and complicated to explain here,but I know yuo understood the situation perfectly!
    Thank you!

  9. Surely, you’re rather missing the point. Who cares what A-level grades someone got twenty years ago? When was the last time someone needed to know what your A-levels were before they hired you?

    The only value in doing well in these kind of exams is to get people to “the next stage” e.g. from GCSE to A-level, or from school to university etc. Aside from that, they’re largely pointless.

    So the most important role that A-levels have, must be to sort the bright, hard-working students from the lazy idiots, within any given year. The truth is – they don’t do a good job of that; and with a 97+% pass-rate, and 25+% achieving top grades, they essentially fail completely at both the top and bottom ends.

    Of course, none of this is the fault of the young people studying for these exams. They can only work within the system. What’s outrageous is that those responsible for the school and university education systems never seem to have any interest in helping our children reach their potential. They seem, almost without exception, to be self-serving gits.

    If I was an A-level student, and found out I’d just got four A-grades this morning, I’d rather suffer a TV crew hanging around for an hour or two, than have my chosen University turn me away because everyone for four As and they don’t have enough places.

  10. Aurora says:

    P.S: The practice is not conceived, only the theory is .That’s it! :)

  11. 112358 says:

    It’s ironic to think, now that university is more expensive than ever, it also seams to be more popular than ever. One also has to ask, is it popular for the right reasons. I’m current studying Mathematics at Edinburgh, and don’t get me wrong, I love everything about University. But I can’t help feeling that at least half of everyone that are here are only here to put off working life that we bit longer. Is it really financially viable any more, I’m only half way through and I already owe over £15,000, and my finance is in a similar position. Together when we get married we will owe over £40,000 and that is a long way back to start from.


  12. sassenach77 says:

    Agreeing with “craig.brown” have not long ago recived a phone call from my mum to say that she’s got 2 B’s for her A/s Levels!!!

    Not bad a for a lady not far off her 60’s, who left school with no qualifications and even in her 30’s only got a D in o’level photography!!!

    There is certainly more to the a-levels than 18 year olds going off to university!

  13. exoskeleton says:

    I was not aware that your system had generally changed from grants to tuition. I do know that in the United States, across all institutions, tuition has increased way beyond the rate of inflation in the past 25-30 years at least. Perhaps the trend is goes back even further.

    Working during a vacation is generally expected, and you’re right that recommending otherwise would seem silly. Another thing that struck me was that your vacation reading was specifically not meant to further your degree. At my school, all the emphasis is on finding something you can do which is closely related to your career ambitions. Science students should look for lab positions, business students want internships (which is tough when the businesses themselves aren’t doing so well), and arts students are practicing their craft year round. I’m not sure about the humanities, to be honest. They might well receive departamental emails encouraging them to study new subjects during the summer, though I would be surprised.

    Of course, not everyone can manage to have a job directly related to gaining career skills and experience. I didn’t this summer, though I certainly tried.

    As for receiving critical grades, I think most of us are self-absorbed enough to be far more worried about our own results than media aggregation and analysis. Stories about exams being constantly simplified can be a bit discouraging, I suppose, but I don’t think any students I know dwell on it. Most would at least claim to be glad that we have it easier now.

    That’s all. I hope the cricket isn’t the massive, soul-crushing disappointment it has the potential to be.

  14. davidsimmons says:

    FYI – my son is just about to start his second year at Cambridge. Students are still actively discouraged from getting a job during term time.

  15. uberdada says:

    I am enjoying getting a modern view of education through my daughter (now 7). My god, they don’t ‘alf work ‘em hard these days! They get homework from the get go…

    The standards certainly seem a lot higher now than when I was a kid (early ’80s). If that trend continues throughout her education I’ll be happy. At least until the matter of university fees crops up. Eeek!

  16. James Thomson says:

    Al, have you ever considered a different life model? You have a fianceé while at university? (I’m assuming you’re male). And already thinking about getting married. Next will presumably be a few kids.
    If education has any value at all, it must be to enable us to think, irrespective of subject studied. Given the state of the planet, it boggles my mind that so many young, intelligent people are sticking to the models of the past. I’ll go further: anyone having children today is behaving irresponsibly, and there should be fiscal measures to discourage it. Mind you, politicians are as bad as anybody in that respect, so we won’t see the sort of legislation I’m proposing while they’re churning out babies ad libitum.
    Sorry. I know the above is too radical for most people, but it’s what I genuinely believe.
    Fact: the population of this planet is currently rising at 6,000,000 per month.

  17. joetroughton says:

    I would just like to thanking you, Steven, for recognizing how annoying it is, for students getting their results, to be bombarded by jornalists on what is oftern the most nerveracking day of their lives! I got my results this morning, and before i could even share what i had got with my parents, who where waiting patiently in the car park, and were almost, if not more, nervous than i was, i was wisked away to be ‘interviewed’ by one of several reporters!


  18. Glynis Smy says:

    DH was a student in London 1977, he had a good grant.I was a student nurse, we saved and still had a good time. Our student children are now working and paying off their loans, despite having financial support from us.
    I did laugh at the comment about reading and not working. I can imagine the words that would float around as a response nowadays. LOL

  19. Whirlochre says:

    The greatest shame is that the ablest minds of today’s youth (unless we suppose the gangs of hoodies that dropped out at 16 have anything more incisive to offer than Special Brew ring-pulls) should be spending so much potential First-achieving time stocking shelves in ASDA. Such life experiences are not without grit-fostering merit, I admit, and no doubt the UK as a whole would harbour more instances of food poisoning were it not for the valiant student workforce slapping the REDUCED stickers on close-to-sell-by-dated cucumbers — but time is a precious commodity and even the wisdom of Costing Everything must surely come a worthy second to the principle that education matters. Sending people to University to spend half their time in a supermarket warehouse is an imbecile’s throughput of life and effort, and I know that if the current system had been in place when I had taken my degree (a few years later than yourself, but still comfortably pre-Bonkers), I (and certainly my poor old Mum and Dad) would have been put off by the debts. Grrr.

  20. Linda52 says:

    Education in the US is way ahead of the rest of the world in embarrassing its students with our meaningless standardized test results. Unlike your A Levels, our teachers teach their students to take tests, to pass one test each year. They teach the children to write a perfect paragraph in form with no content. Teachers teach following a script written by the state’s dept of education. The hell with creativity, intuition and students’ needs.
    NCLB (No child left behind) is one of Bushy’s gifts which keeps on giving…. taking. I am a little older than you, Dear Stephen, and I do not know if I could survive the ed system today. I am an educator in the arts and fight daily against the idiocy of NCLB. I am reminded of your earlier podcast Compliance Defiance. “Compliance with what? Compliance with being an asshole?”

  21. amyl_nitrate says:

    This is the thing I dislike the most about this time of year, knowing the vultures come out to say the same old tedious shit about “exams are getting easier!” No they’re not. School and college are not getting easier. Students and teachers alike are expected year on year to put more and more work in in less time. The content changes, things disappear over the year while other topics get put in, often because it’s a current buzz topic the government want to push. The students who put in all the work deserve the praise, not for the media to crap all over their achievements saying it’s all meaningless or inflated. Graduates suffer similarly with working hard through uni only to come out the other side to be told they’re not experienced enough for the job. You shouldn’t expect to get a job just because you’ve got a degree and yes experience does matter, it still makes people feel like crap though when job hunting. Now the hot new thing is the diplomas though the numbers taking those on are not as predicted and I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t want to take something as big and time consuming as a 14-19 diploma and find out later that I’m not being taken seriously for it and that I would’ve been better off with A-Levels. It’s a risk. It’s like when I was at college we were the first ones to be forced into taking Key Skills and later found out it was a useless qualification that did not get counted by universities or employers. ¬_¬ I think the diplomas could have potential but there’s some things about them that feel off to me. I don’t think it’s a good idea to expect teenagers to make big life decisions at the age of 14. I think 16 is young enough as it is for narrowing your choices into certain subject areas!

  22. ajw93 says:

    Welcome to our world. Over here in the States, high school has been a college-prep pressure-cooker for quite some time. Even twenty years ago when I was graduating, the SAT loomed like some great menace.

    Now, it’s an order of magnitude worse.

    And what @exoskeleton said about tuition and working is truer than one can imagine! I was one of the lucky, lucky few to have my education (at a relatively dirt-cheap public university) paid for by my parents and still, more than fifteen years after graduation, I wake up thanking my lucky stars not to have that debt load.

    Meanwhile, “teaching to the test” has taken over the education system in a big BIG way over here! When I was in school there were tracks for education in my high school: vocational, regular old college-prep; state-sponsored college prep with more rigorous year-end exams. Now, only the state curriculum is offered and students who have trouble with it end up falling behind, in the name of artificially jacking up the school’s “scores”. Sometimes I despair.

    Meanwhile, my sister has just been through the SATs and we’re just as anxious for results as you can imagine!

  23. ajw93 says:

    ugh. two ‘Meanwhile’s in a row? Sorry, all.

  24. moshuajoody says:

    Ah, but most students nowadays aren’t reading generally or specifically, even these A-level ones you mention, and it has nothing to do with working. And everything to do with millions of louder voices. Twitter is one of them (not everyone can incorporate such things into an already well-balanced diet). J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have pulled some of the more dreamy young adults into reading, but la-la land is where it ends for most of these. The real problem, is of course, a literary academia that has sequestered itself from the world at large and constantly worships itself behind the veil of the holy of holies. Some theorists have made stabs at decipherable relevance (Fanon, Baudrillard), but critical scholars have made none. How can new generations be expected to read at all when it makes no sense to do so?

  25. Sam Liu says:

    Excellent, Mr. Fry, truly excellent! I’m 14 and adore reading. I have a strong passion to go to university and become an author. And I for one am dreading my A Levels, because as you rightly say, not a year goes buy where some stuffy politician complains that are exams are too easy. I don’t see why we cannot celebrate achievements, but it seems to be embedded in our society to automatically assume that if an individual succeeds, they’re endeavours must have been too simple!

  26. Aurora says:

    Now I see!
    The world is not interested in what the 25’s or so have to say!Nobody care,our fathers did saw and do know everything!
    STOP USING YOUR BRAIN MATES! IS A WASTE OF TIME! No one cares if we hurt for the world around us, if we want to change it, ABOVE ALL NOBODY CARES ABOUT THE IDEAS WE CAN HAVE TO CHANGE THE WORLD!We are the last, nobody will believe us,and we have just to shut up and stop thinking because somebody already does it for us ….
    We have just to wait it to end!

  27. poppydear says:

    Yes I did know the oval belongs to the dutchy of Cornwel thats why the surrey cricket club has the prince of wales feathers on their badge

  28. charlieperry says:

    I was at Cambridge in the late 90’s and it was considered very daring but incredibly cool to take a part-time job in term time.

  29. Gluben says:

    I’ve done a lengthier blog on the subject, where I share your views. I hope you enjoy reading it, if you have time of course, Stephen:

  30. zettieleeuw says:

    Hi All,
    As “babyboomer” in The Netherlands I learned what work means. Had to wait untill a payrise in my first job to be able to go to Uni, and pay for it myself. Years later Dutch politicians promissed “everybody a change to study”. And they got that chance. Nowadays the studycosts (and rent for a room) have risen so much that(nearly) every student has to have a (parttime) job for those “nice extra’s”: a few hours in the pub, a visit to a theatre, concert, etc. But “work” is good for experience and their CV!
    This week is “Euraka-week” in Rotterdam: for New students… to give them a welcome in their New town (organised by the Student-clubs). No following from paparazzi! New students don’t need all that nonsence.

    *** Thanks for a good blog!!!

    Haha, I payed to become a (good) journalist… at one of the leading morningpapers… pr now – as volunteer. And in that “job” I got (and get) to know many! students with very good ideas! If… one listens to them! One only need time to listen good.

  31. Tony Fisk says:

    If education teaches you *one* thing, it should be ‘how to learn’. Somebody in my daughter’s kindergarten class grokked that straight off.. I hope it isn’t drilled out of her over the next twelve years! (with this lesson learnt, you can easily go off and read just what you like in the vacation, for education never ends!)

    @aurora, words of hope. While you wait for it all to end, I suggest you read something like Worldchanging.

    It’s only mostly gloom and doom. 6 million a year… and falling.

    Being of about Stephen’s vintage (sans taxi) I often wonder whether I’m a boomer or an x-er. I certainly find myself getting more radical as I age, not less… (maybe it’s time to stop learning? – Nah! ;-)

  32. Tony Fisk says:

    One thing that does bug me in this teaching to the test mentality is its persistence into job interviews. I am a software engineer of about twenty years standing, and it does annoy me when I am presented with ‘a little aptitude test’ in an interview.

    Now, I actually do approve of such things: it’s certainly easy for a smooth talker to pass themselves off as something they aren’t without a bit of technical rigour put in front of them.

    What pains me is when I get asked stodgy questions about 1. subtle ordering of operators in ‘C’, or 2. the operation of an arcane bit of clever code, or 3. a logic problem.
    A newly minted graduate would apply themselves enthusiastically.
    Somebody who has twenty years experience (and who hasn’t done an exam in twenty years!) and who is more interested in what the job is might answer them thus (and thereby put themselves out of the running):
    1. when in doubt, just shove some braces round it! (Potter fans might refer to it as the ‘bezoar manouevre’)
    2. call the author of the clever code in, ask *them* what it is supposed to do, and then proceed to suggest how it might be made more comprehensible (always bearing in mind that, being the author probably means they are no longer available for an interview!)
    3. point out where assumptions have to be made to cover the holes in the logic of the problem

    Do such things matter, or are they put there for the sake of ticking a box in the procedure?
    Frank Muir wrote about his final examination for the photography section of the RAF. In front of a board of examiners, he had to act out the procedure for developing a roll of film in a dark room and was failed as an utter disgrace because he did not mime turning out the light!

    Having performed one set of such tests quite well, I was knocked back for not being able to type fast enough.

    All lies and jests…

    I rather suspect passion (of youth) is the key!

    OK Ladies and gentlemen, I have no doubt taken up enough time on someone else’s soapbox.


  33. Squiza says:

    Hi Mr Fry,

    Just finished watching your exquisite doco “In America”. I live in Australia and I reckon you should cum downunder and do the same. Great country.
    Anyway, enjoy.
    Paul. xx

  34. brazil1973 says:

    You said you did some teaching,how come you got past the CRB check

  35. Aurora says:

    @Tony Fisk …I’m just not interested in changing the world …alone,but above all I don’t want to be called MAD just to have tried. When all the people will realize how necessary is changing it,I’ll do my best,but for now I just want to stop learning someting I can’t use or do,and be pulled apart for knowing.
    Thanks for the advice anyway!

  36. drumbum99 says:

    Throughout the year we are told that our generation is worthless and a bunch of knife carrying “hoodies”. Then the one time of the year we shine and show how hard we’ve worked over the year we’re told “bah they’re just easier exams”. It’s almost as if people want us to fail. To be told that the results we have worked so hard for are not worth the paper they are written on hurts. I’m sure I’m not alone in having spent a lot of time alone over the past two year working for those grades when I could’ve been out acting like we’re told we should be, stealing and getting involved in knife crime. I don’t think these media outlets actually realise how much damage they can do by printing this rubbish.
    Sure the exams have been changed since they were young but that doesn’t mean they’re any easier. Our chemistry teacher told us on many occasions how part of the now GCSE course used to be part of his degree! Now I realise that the content won’t exactly be the same but as times change and we learn more of the world as a society the content of our education will change. So of course there will be gaps in our education compared to yours, yet there will be things we learn these days that weren’t taught “back in the day”. Can’t people allow us a little glory without trying to pry it from us? At least allow us to finish our education before judging us.
    We’re told our generation no longer cares. We do care; you just don’t let us show it! If we are constantly told we are worthless, well, then that is what we will become. Sorry about this rant it’s just incredibly demoralising to be told all year round that we are worthless. Thank you Stephen for a great post, it’s good to see that some people don’t judge us badly and understand our pain. Thank you =)

  37. Tony Fisk says:

    @Aurora: understood. *Nothing* an individual can do in isolation is going to be of much use at really changing the world. So why should an individual do anything?

    Still, tipping points can work for good as well as ill.

  38. Aurora says:

    @Tony Fisk
    The problem is not the isolation, is the category (25/30) to be UNBELIEVED,UNCONSIDERED,PULLED APART …I say who cares,we Wont be 25 forever …LUCKILY!!!

  39. Dave W says:

    Not only will the journalist have A levels, a degree, an MA and a Phd, they will also have Teeline at 100 wpm. Hey, student, don’t forget to ask the graduate in the UCAS call centre how many A levels, degrees, MAs and Phds they have too.

  40. Tony Fisk says:

    John Howard (ex Australian PM) is reported to have once quipped that a conservative is ‘someone who doesn’t think they are morally superior to their grandfather’

    I think/hope he was emphasising respect for elders, which is fair enough, to a point.

    The problem arises when you turn that idea around and consider the morality of your grandchildren. Are *they* going to be better than you? If not, the law of averages suggests they are going to be worse, which is where your problems start. Indeed, the fecklessness of youth has been complained about since Aristotle’s day, and most likely before then. If it were true, then civilisation must be in a truly parlous state by now!

    As you say Aurora, won’t be 25 forever! Just be a good ancestor and don’t pass on the contempt to your kids because that’s ‘dying before you get old’! (And Roger Waters is old enough to be your grandad!!)

  41. puckersthepig says:

    Thank you so much dearest Mr Fry for managing to take my mind off the daunting and terrifying thoughts of the dreaded ‘results’. I spent my 20th of August reading and re-reading this blog as my parents sat by the door screaming at the post box. I have my results now however, and I suppose, well, I suppose they aren’t too bad. Thanks again. Kate x

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