The Decline in Educational Standards | Jake Scott

Today is A-Level Results Day in the United Kingdom. As students celebrate across the country, there is a disturbing fact emerging: 45% of A-Level grades are A or A*. This is an increase from roughly 25% three years ago. 

There has been a steady and perceptible decline in standards in education in Great Britain for the last thirty years, but it has undeniably been accelerated in the last fifteen. It was once said that a British A-Level, taken at the age of eighteen, was the equivalent of an American degree; now, I would be surprised if it was as valuable as a high school education. This is not to denigrate American education – indeed, it seems to have retained some of the rigour where British academia has not – but a decline in standards is still a danger on either side of the Atlantic. Moreover, the threat of censure and an imperilled free speech goes hand-in-hand with the decline of standards, and where one follows, the other necessarily leads.

To my mind, there are three principal causes of this decline. The first of these is a noticeable transition from the development of the critical faculties towards knowledge retention as a method of examination. In recent years coursework has been increasingly rejected in favour of examination, despite many studies showing examination to be detrimental to learning. The difference is subtle but important: our modern form of examination encourages a culture of ‘cramming’, something that both American and British education shares, which is little more than a form of ‘habit learning’, in the same way that you could eventually learn to walk down a pathway blindfolded, but it would not teach you to echolocate. By contrast, an extended assessment that takes the pupils’ improvement in knowledge retention as well as argument development into consideration provides a more consistent method of assessment.

The problem goes back further, however; a study produced by the think-tank Civitas in 2005 revealed that, in the 1990s, a combination of overcompensation and poor education had resulted in literacy levels falling by 9% amongst primary school pupils (aged seven). At the time, Mary Hilton of Homerton College at Cambridge University concluded much the same: reading tests were becoming progressively easier for students to answer, offsetting the supposedly improved results.[2]

And cultural shifts have a wider impact: in Britain, ‘school’ used to be seen to finish at the age of sixteen with the GCSE examinations, at which point you were then expected to go into the world of work. Both of my parents did so, and so did most of their peers; as recent as ten years ago, however, the government changed the law required pupils to continue with education until they were eighteen, to enter college or sixth form (ages seventeen and eighteen), unless they had a job secured. This, however, was merely a formalisation – by this point in the transformation of our education system, most people stayed on to attend college anyway. This might be seen as inconsequential, but it has had a major impact on the labour market; as increasing numbers of people had college-level education, the job market shifted in kind to go from asking for a college qualification to expecting them.

The situation was made worse with the great ‘university push’ – former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s stated goal of having half of all British children go to university. As a result, the cultural attitude towards education in Britain is now one in which ‘school’ is considered to end not at 16, nor even at 18, but at 21, the typical age at which one finishes “their degree”. Consequently, basic skills – literacy, numeracy, and of course critical thinking – are treated as deferred qualities, with each new ‘stage’ of ‘school’ merely another place where you might ‘learn’ them. The university at which I research and have taught for two years has a dedicated department to teaching academic skills, and the common refrain that “first year doesn’t count” is true insofar as the first year of undergraduate study is considered a time for students to “learn how to learn”. The effect is felt year on year; declining qualities of students, means many universities have even considered dropping grammatical and spelling abilities as a criterion for assessment.

As with above, this has also had a notable impact on the labour market; increasingly employers have pivoted to accommodate the massive increase in graduate students by opening up graduate programmes that, often, require a degree in any subject. The greatest example of this in recent years is the British police force which, as of last year, requires a degree for prospective officers. The two-fold impact of a significant increase in annual graduate numbers is, therefore, the devaluation of the degree in the labour market, and the associated problem of grade inflation. A common attitude amongst graduates is that they might as well do a Master’s degree, because they want (quite rightly) to stand out, but “everyone has a degree these days”.

Increased attendance has also had a disturbing impact on the quality of education, something I can attest to from my time in higher education. As cohorts increase, universities have less time to dedicate to face to face interaction, and lectures become more standardised rather than tailored. As cohorts were typically 60-100 students historically, personal tutors were capable of meeting more regularly and intensely; now, with cohorts of well over 300, that opportunity doesn’t exist, or at least is diminished. This has a knock on effect: knowledge has to be packaged into easily deliverable, standardised modules, and assessment is done on such a broad sweep that students don’t get the attention they deserve. This isn’t a new problem though – Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” lecture in 1921 predicted such an issue, but didn’t foresee the scale of it. Now, university staff are expected to be, as Weber thought, educators, administrators and researchers – to the detriment of the education.

All of these problems are compounded by the identity politics agenda – the ‘woke brigade’. This massive wave of activism in the last few years has resulted in the devaluation of universally valuable education to contingent and identity-dependent ‘learning’ – as evidenced in activist group Youth Music’s suggestion that children benefit from learning the British rapper Stormzy, not Mozart. There certainly might be value in learning contemporary music, but the reason given – that of an ‘urgent transformation’ to reflect Britain’s changing demographic composition – is spurious, especially given that all you need to appreciate good music is an ear.

The increasing push for a decolonisation of curricula – a term that makes no sense in itself, as no curriculum was never ‘colonised’ – is merely the apotheosis of this idea. Ideas are judged by from whom they come, rather than at what they aim – universal truths. In the field of political theory, in which I work, the idea of the field being ‘stale, male and pale’ has become so authoritative that many lecturers in thrall to the idea include black and minority writers seemingly for the sake of it, even if they are saying the same things as other (read: white) writers.

To return to my above point, the decline in standards has a close relationship with the suppression of free speech for a deceptively simple reason: the decline in standards prevents the articulation of any meaningful alternative. Critical thinking is not encouraged, and so neither is criticism. Instead, uncritical adoption of what is told – told, not taught – to students is regurgitated for the sake of a grade, at every level, and passes unchallenged into the public world.

On A-Level Results Day in 2021, in which 45% of British A-Level students have supposedly achieved an A Grade or better, this issue has come to a head. The consequence of all of this is a serious decline in education, both in terms of standards (as the marketisation of universities combined with the woke agenda for decolonisation) and results (with illiteracy climbing and a ‘degree inflation’ situation). There needs to be a serious consideration as to what education is for, at every level – clearly, the current attitude of ‘qualifications over skills’ is not working.

Photo Credit.

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