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UK: A-level results’ euphoria and related worries

Britain has every reason to celebrate, it seems. Figures released by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) show that a record number of A-grades were awarded at this year’s ‘A-levels’ in the UK. An ‘A-level’ is a standardised test in a secondary school subject, generally used in the UK as entry qualification for university studies. This year, more than one out of four papers got the A grade, while more than 75 percent of the papers got at least a C grade. This is the 27th year in a row with an improvement in grades in the UK.

The improvement also translates into more pressure for university places. Figures released by UCAS (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, July 2009) show an increase of 60 000 university applications, compared to last year. Since the government has announced that it will fund as many as 10 000 additional places (and that only partially) competition this year is fiercer than ever. High-calibre universities already report having to turn down candidates with not just three, but four ‘A’s.

Healthy competition, one might conclude – only la crème de la crème gets in. But are the Brits really getting smarter? More and more voices would say no. The Opposition even argue that the A-levels are being ‘dumbed down’, pointing to the schools league tables as part of the problem. In order to be ranked higher some schools encourage pupils to take ‘easier’ subjects or only focus on the borderline C-grade pupils, while the needs of better performing students are largely ignored. In response, the government is now considering ways to reform the league tables, to make the system fairer.