How difficult is it to get good grades at GCSE & A level these days?

(76 Posts)
Dragonwoman Wed 06-Mar-13 10:22:59

Asking the question because the Mumsnet offspring seem to be very high performers generally!

Am starting to get a little concerned as I have 3 DCs currently in primary school & the more I read, the more it seems competition will be very stiff at secondary level & beyond.

I am old enough to have taken O levels. Now granted I went to a poorly performing comp (in the days before league tables, so schools tended to get away with being lazy) but I don't remember ANYONE getting an A at O level. Not one. Never mind a string of them. I got 5 O levels - Bs & Cs and was considered to have done well. I had never met anyone socially who had been to university apart from the older sister of one friend who had been to a polytechnic.

Of course everything is different now, but I'm wondering how different? If I were 16 again with the same effort on my part (but considerably more on the part of the school) would my 5 O levels transform into 9 GCSEs A-C with a few As?

I guess I am concerned about my DCs. If they get 5 GCSEs Bs & Cs, that will not stack up well nationally in comparison to their peers.

Both my DH & I got into university without As at A level. We came out with 2.2 degrees. Again not that great by todays standards.

I'm asking, because assuming our DCs are academically as able as DH & I, will their grades look better than ours? I'm hoping so, when viewing the competition!

Idratherbemuckingout Mon 25-Mar-13 16:47:29

Dragonwoman,
I took my O levels back in 1974 (when grades 1 to 6 were passes) and when my sister took them in 1976 it had become A to C was a pass but they were still GCEs not GCSEs.
My mum was by then teaching at the school and she had a breakdown name by name of all the pupils in my sister's year and all their individual results. My sister and I went over them with great interest as these were not generally available usually.
We had been at a grammar school that had recently gone co-educational with the boys (the year before) and was about to go comprehensive with its first intake that year I think.
It was very noticeable that despite being a high achieving grammar school in a top end residential area of a medium sized and very prosperous country town (with a good catchment area due to the types of jobs available locally) there were not great handfuls of As being won.
It seemed there was a handful of boys who had got virtually straight As but the rest of the boys had performed considerably less well.
Then amongst the girls (handily the chart was laid out with boys and girls separated) there were more that had done well but hardly any who could compare with the few boys who had excelled.
I knew the girls and boys who had done well and they were by far and away the brightest of their year group or the hardest working or probably both.
My sister got 6 grade As I think and 3 others.
She is a very hard worker and pretty bright.
I think grammar schools then took the top 15 per cent of children who had passed the 11+ exams but that did not mean all were high flyers. There were four classes in the girls grammar school (and I suppose four in the boys) and of these two were considered the top streams but we were streamed for most subjects anyway. I think the two top sets did Latin but I am not sure.
Anyway, the point of this long and rambling reply is that yes, it WAS very unusual then to get a string of A grades and yes, it has got much easier.
Before anyone who disagrees comes down on me like a ton of bricks let me point out how the modern GCSE works and why it differs from the old O level.
1. The old O level was an exam aimed at the top 15 percent of the school year and as such contained work set to that standard throughout.
2. The modern GCSE is a cobbling together of the old CSE and GCE and as such is aimed at ALL pupils taking the exam.
3. You might well point out that there is a tier system. And be right. But the SATS papers and GCSEs are all constructed using the same set of questions. If you are taking a Foundation Tier Maths exam for instance there will be some of the easier questions from the Higher Tier at the end of it.
4. On the Higher Tier paper there will be a certain proportion of questions aimed at the lowest grade and so on up to the top grade. If you compare the proportions with the grade boundaries something will become glaringly obvious. IF YOU DO WELL ENOUGH IN THE EASIER PARTS YOU CAN GET A GRADE THAT IS ACTUALLY HIGHER THAN YOUR PERFORMANCE WOULD SUGGEST. In other words you can get an A star or an A without having to complete the whole section that is set at that grade.
This would lead to the conclusion that the mass of As and A stars achieved do not actually recognise achievement at that level.

RiversideMum Sun 24-Mar-13 08:19:50

I went to a top girls grammar and was bored stiff, couldn't be bothered to learn stuff off by heart and got Bs and Cs for my O levels. There were not many girls who got all As. None of the girls who eventually got into Oxbridge got all As for O level. There seemed to be a received wisdom at the time that O levels were about rote learning and A levels needed intellect. Looking at my DD's work, lots of the ways of approaching A level back then have filtered down to GCSE. Much more thinking rather than regurgitating.

In my DDs year at her comp, there were 37 DCs who got more than 8 As. I know this because they got prizes! 3 DCs got 13 A*s.

Too much has changed for comparison to be made. No % grade allocations. Change in structure of courses. League tables. Better teaching. DCs know much better what is expected ... it's not all about dumbing down and grade inflation. I know that my DD worked much harder than I ever did to get her results last summer.

MadAboutHotChoc Tue 19-Mar-13 14:37:31

I used to think that GCSEs are much easier than O levels - now that my very bright and able DC is in the middle of his GCSES, we all can see how much pressure they are being put under thanks to CAs. When I was doing my O levels, I didn't give these much thought and never felt pressurised until it was time to do the exams.

tiredaftertwo Mon 11-Mar-13 07:53:47

Polly, how old is your dd?

pollypandemonium Sun 10-Mar-13 23:38:09

I think the process of learning is so much easier today because we are not reliant on books. Children learn well from videos, utube clips, interactive whiteboards, recordings of voices etc. If we had this multimedia learning in our day I would probably have had a lot more good grades. DD seems to do no homework but seems to know everything - she just absorbs it.

So I don't think there is more competition because children are working harder and their parents are pushier, I think the baseline is naturally higher because it's easier to learn stuff.

But I do get concerned about their ability to read and digest things properly. If the government ever feels the need to get tighter on that aspect of education (comprehension, writing things in your own words, analysis etc) we will be in trouble.

creamteas Sat 09-Mar-13 14:48:31

Mummy Part of the problem is that the leagues tables use entry grades as part of the calculation. So if you want an an easy way for unis to go up 20/30 places you raise your entry criteria!

But there are plenty of decent unis for students with Bs & Cs. Some of them are sneered at on MN, but in RL, the students often do well and get the same sort of graduate jobs as those asking for As...

mummytime Sat 09-Mar-13 14:30:13

If Universities did drop their grades it would be a good thing. From what I have seen looking for my son; lots of Universities want AAA or AAA* or above; a few will accept on a few D's and E's; BUT there is virtually no-one who will take students with B's and C's. Which is ridiculous, there are plenty of people who could well cope with the right Degree course but might not have got the best A'levels.

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 14:24:02

“The goalposts are being shifted but not necessarily by someone with a valid GPS.”

Marvellous quote from that Telegraph article!

Did anyone see the HMC report about how poor marking and grading standards are? The teaching unions and so on picked it up and ran with it because (whatever you think of them) many of these schools have a stable/defined intake, so when they report great and random variation it is a red flag.

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 14:19:14

Goodness me, how very upsetting for everyone. Thank you for explaining.

If this happened all over though, wouldn't universities drop their grade requirements, so from that POV it would sort of balance out?

Copthallresident Sat 09-Mar-13 12:22:00

I should say that there is a group, maybe 5, in their year of serious attention seeking pupils who unusually for the school don't work hard, so you would have expected some deflation but amongst that 23% were a lot of very hard working DCs who were predicted A*, are now studying English Literature at A level and have hopes of studying it at uni........

Copthallresident Sat 09-Mar-13 12:12:15

Tired At a school where normally the vast majority get A*/ A last year the vast majority got A/B, the previous year 3% got Bs, last year it was 23%. the previous year 53% got A*, last year it was 35%. I would say that every pupil got a grade lower, and that was with the vast majority having had their coursework (40% of the marks ) marked A*. The Wycombe Abbey Head went public www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9497631/GCSE-results-university-places-at-risk-from-grades-drop.html and I know other local indie Heads have been open with parents about it.

I suppose that we should qualify our advice that it is no more difficult, or easy, to get good grades these days than it was in the past provided pupils work hard and are taught well, with unless of course they are affected by the random effects of Gove's political meddling..........

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 11:48:28

Russian, yes I know, that is what I thought you meant, and I believe you smile, I just don't see why it is relevant. And of course that won't change as a result of the new rules because your dd's school is already doing what Gove wants. Most schools have been spreading the exams out over two years, to a greater or lesser extent, and are now not allowed to. So for most schools and children this is a big change, which may affect how easy it is to get good grades, which is what we are discussing.

Copthall, blimey - and mmmmm.....that's interestng......What does the 40% refer to? Yes, that was my impression about iGCSEs, that there were fewer papers, mostly done at the end, with some coursework.

I hope the boards do reduce the number of papers, even if they are longer exams. But won't that take longer than the all-terminal change - so a group of children will be caught in the middle with loads of papers because they are sitting exams that were designed to be done under a different system?

RussiansOnTheSpree Sat 09-Mar-13 11:02:36

Tired I meant what I said - they don't do modules. All the exams are at the end of the two years (they start the GCSE programme in Y9 and do all their exams at the end of Y10. Well, you know - May and June. Obviously they do the CAs during the year but most of them have been in Y10 too, I think. Not many in Y9.

Theas18 Sat 09-Mar-13 10:43:34

Hmm.

I'm from a piss poor academically (then) comp and got 7A 2B and a C. My friend got 9A 1B .we were the high achievers and largely did it ourselves, but it was achievable. We did have to set our sights above what the school though was possible though...

My kid are/were grammar educated and get brilliant grades. However they do also work bloody hard, it's not all "natural ability". From what I'm seeing from the eldest at uni, actually she is not working as hard now but (probably having found her"thing") is flying so high that mn would terrel me I'm making it up...

Copthallresident Sat 09-Mar-13 10:25:16

Tired The English Literature exam I mentioned was IGCSE, two pieces of coursework (40%) and one one hour exam, 2 questions.

Interestingly DDs' schools results deflated 40% this year (a dysfunctional year but not that dysfunctional), have anecdotally heard similar results from other indies, and the IGCSE is supposedly immune to political interference.........

mummytime Sat 09-Mar-13 09:16:40

I think AQA for one is reducing the number of papers. But instead of doing C1, B1 and P1 for core science, you will sit one Core Science exam, which takes 3x as long. There will also be two routes to triple science: Seperate sciences (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) or Core, Additional and Further Additional. Both sets test all the same material, but one will group questions by science area, the other will group by difficulty.

The real change is getting rid of December/January resits; which existed even back in the olden days (I sat one, a friend was ill and did all her A'levels at resit time).

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 09:11:09

Thinking further, what is behind my question is - does anyone think Gove has done this to deflate grades (without causing the sort of political and legal snarl up we saw this summer?)?

Grades could go down because: kids may perform less well doing so many exams together, especially in courses designed to be modular so they may not have studied some material for a long time; no resit chances during the course; and schools may switch board and course to ones that were designed to be (more?) terminal, which might depress grades in the short term too?

tiredaftertwo Sat 09-Mar-13 09:06:20

Russian, they are already doing all terminal exams (albeit in year 10, which is the school's perogative). The change means no more modules during the course - it is all terminal. All schools will have to do that, most haven't until now but your dd's school already is so there will be no change. Is that what you mean? Sorry, I don't understand.

I was wondering whether schools have been looking at their syllabi - for example, I gather that iGCSEs, because they were always all terminal have fewer papers (not absolutely sure about that - anecdotal) - does anyone think schools will switch to boards and syllabi with fewer papers?

RussiansOnTheSpree Fri 08-Mar-13 22:52:32

Tired DD1's school do all terminal exams, all in Y10. No modules. They do 11 subjects. Gove's plans seem unlikely to change this.

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 22:11:52

Sadly, Gove's plans do mean that. All modules to be taken at the end but (in the short term at least) no fewer modules (I checked this recently at options evening). So yes, loads of exams at the end and CAs in the year. Have schools where the norm s for the bright kids to do more than say 10 GCSEs, perhaps manageable with some modules taken in yr 10, taken this on board?

Copthallresident Fri 08-Mar-13 20:44:50

sunnyday DDs' school do all GCSE and A level exams at the end of the two year course, most are the course designed that way but with ones that are designed to be modular it all gets a bit silly. DD sat 6 Science exams this summer, would have been 9 if she sat triple. On the other hand her English Literature exam designed to be sat at the end of the two years with just two pieces of coursework, was 60% dependent on two essays written in an hour. I assume that Gove's plans do not encompass testing knowledge within 3 exams for every GCSE, if you sat 10 that would be 30 exams, so the amount of knowledge of the curriculum they can test will be reduced and the chances of messing up increased.

Modular exams though mean relentless pressure and ruined Christmas's......

creamteas Fri 08-Mar-13 20:01:28

I barely went to school when I was 15 (for a variety of reasons too boring to do into). My entire strategy was to read the textbook the day before the exam and I managed to get 7/8 O levels, (1A, 3B, 3C). At the time I was blessed with an excellent memory so for most subjects this was enough. The failure was in music which is not surprising as it was the one subject that required sustained work.

My kids work much harder that I ever did, and their teachers do as well. The grammar school I attended rarely looked at your books and although they set homework they never marked it, I worked this out fairly early on and consequently never bothered doing any grin I don't remember them even saying anything about my non-attendance.

I am also an EBAC failure, having only 1 science grin

tiredaftertwo Fri 08-Mar-13 19:13:05

SwedishEdith, that is so true. And biology is all around us - blood groups, what the heart does, how animals are adapted. And what my dc do in biology seems very similar to what I do. I suspect you wouldn't get a higher grade liek that. Good on them for an interesting experiment!

SwedishEdith Fri 08-Mar-13 18:52:58

But, Lovecat, the gcse is designed to be taken by 15/16 years olds. I'm the same age as your brother and his friends and I just know more stuff simply because I've lived longer. I think anyone who is reasonably intelligent and interested (and your brother and his mates sound like that simply because they chose sit a gcse for a laugh) just naturally acquires more knowledge.

grovel Fri 08-Mar-13 18:33:13

sunnyday, I think it depends on your definition of "easier". The material may be harder but showing what you know may be easier. I suppose.

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