Is education failing (or are we just easily shocked by bad statistics?)

Is education failing (or are we just easily shocked by bad statistics?)

Today, being the first day of the final 2015 Ashes tour, the day that GCSE results come out, and the day that the CIPD has claimed that the majority of UK graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, we are faced with the inevitable annual questions of: are exams getting easier, are degrees a waste of time, and would Geoff Boycott’s mother really have hit sixes with a stick of rhubarb? No, I mean it: these really are all the same question.

By the way, congratulations to everyone who is getting results today, even, and perhaps especially to those who did not get what they wanted: it is better to have fought and lost than not have fought at all.

Every year, we are told that something has happened to GCSE and A-level results. Passes have gone up this year and top grades are down. Sometimes top grades are up. Pundits immediately jump to what they do punditry.

By the way, this is an article about how we perceive statistics. I do not intend to offer, except by way of relaying someone else’s conclusions, a panacea for education: after all, just like Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove before her, I am neither a teacher nor a student.

It is a truth almost universally unacknowledged that statistics inevitably go up or down if the sample is large enough. With small samples, they can stay the same for a bit, and then dramatically swing up or down before reverting to what they were before. A very large sample is a bit like the sea: the waves are always going up or down, but, compared to the volume of the sea, they don’t go up or down very much (small comfort if you are in a small boat. A small sample is a bit like a sink full of water. It may remain very still, but the impact of a single event, such as a bar of soap falling into it, will produce dramatic changes.

We should absolutely not be surprised when exam results improve one year. Nor should we be surprised by year on year improvement, or by year on year decline. None of these things actually tell us anything useful about education.

As is well known, GCSE and A-level exams are designed to remain more or less equivalent. Approximately the same proportion of those taking the exams should be getting the top grades, and the exams should be more or less as difficult. These two things are hard to square with each other, hence the gradual rise in results since 1988. This is by sharp contrast with, say, an entrance examination where only an exact number of candidates can succeed irrespective of how many make the attempt, or a professional qualification where a certain level of ability must be shown, else the profession becomes devalued.

All of these are quite different from what appears (at least from comments on news articles, and the articles themselves) to be the popular perception, that exams should be exactly ‘as hard’ from year to year, in some way that is the equivalent of everyone being asked exactly the same questions.

This graph shows the gradual rise in A*-C, equivalent to passes in the old O-levels:


GCSE A*-C 1988-2014, showing a gradual rise

GCSE A*-C 1988-2014

I have seen it argued that GCSE papers are now much easier than they were twenty years ago, and I’ve also seen it argued that they are much harder. 1.

People who argue that they are easier insist that the graph proves they are easier, because the results are improving. People who argue that they are harder do so often on the basis of famously difficult questions, such as the the sweets question this year. I have to say, looking at the sweets question, I don’t recall there being anything remotely as difficult when I took O-level, but that’s hardly evidence.

On the simple reading, we could argue that the exams must be getting easier, because A*-C has gone from below half to above two thirds of candidates, while the total number of candidates is about the same (in other words, it isn’t that students are being put off).

However, that assumes that teachers are not teaching better. I don’t wish to face a rush of teachers from the 1980s with pitch-forks baying for my blood. Nonetheless, in every other walk of life, we expect year on year improvement in a profession. The students may be more or less equivalent from year to year (that’s an assumption we’ll come back to), but teachers are surely pooling their knowledge, looking at examples of best practice, sharpening their understanding of how to teach to a particular syllabus, and so on. Teachers in the UK are graduates (and we’ll come back to that as well), and you would expect them, over time, to work out how the system works, and make the most of it.

The assumption that students are more or less the same is also one we should challenge. Many parents aspire to bring up their children with more opportunities and advantages than they had. Why should anyone be surprised when an entire culture dedicated to this task produces students more able to pass exams? There was a time when verbal reasoning tests were considered a good, fair estimate of a child’s aptitude. Then parents started to do practice papers with their children. Then some parents started to coach their children. Then some parents actually paid for special tuition for their children. This produces the much maligned ‘Glass Floor‘, where middle-class parents do their best to make sure their children are not left behind. I have to say, I was slightly astonished to hear complaints about the Glass Floor, given that this is more or less our society’s definition of ‘good parenting’. However, as a non-parent, I should perhaps forebear to comment.

No person of my generation wants to admit, even in private, that ‘the kids are cleverer now than we were’. We have been brought up with the notion that ‘cleverness’ is a fixed commodity.

This, itself, is an artefact of the way IQ is calculated. Our Intelligence Quotient is not a measure of our intelligence, or even a measure of our ability to do well on verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests, but a statistical measure of how far we deviate from the mean. The mean IQ is defined as 100. There are not enough people on Earth for anyone to have an IQ of 200 (notwithstanding the test that was going round Facebook earlier in the year). This isn’t because the very cleverest person isn’t clever enough, but because there are insufficient people for the IQ metric to produce that result. As the population of the planet grows, the possible outliers get further apart.

People have sometimes told me, in shocked terms, that half the population has an IQ of below 100. By definition, this has to be the case, and it always will be. IQ is not a measure of intelligence, but of population statistics: however clever people get, 100 will always be the average IQ.

Are the kids getting cleverer?

This is the time to talk about the Ashes, and Geoff Boycott’s bat. Anyone who listens to Test Match Special will be used to the marvellously chuntering Geoff Boycott, going on about how much harder it was to bat on uncovered pitches, how much easier it is to stroke the ball to the boundary, and how his mother could have hit particular bowlers, using a stick of rhubarb instead of a bat. Boycott just gets better and better, and is mercilessly teased by his fellow commentators.

Nonetheless, all the things he says are true (apart from the bit about the rhubarb). Bats are better, pitches more consistent, and the level of training and coach provided to top players is beyond anything that could have been imagined when I went to see Boycott playing at Edgbaston in the 1970s.

However, bowlers are also getting better: Shane Warne shocked the cricketing world with his ‘ball of the century‘ to dismiss Gatting in the 1993 Ashes. It was not the first time that a new kind of spin proved destructive, but Warne did not prove to be a one-trick pony, and continued a devastating career long after. After him we had the Doosra. In the mean time, the evolution of reverse-swing and swing bowling in general has made England hard to face on its home territory.

The bowling is getting better, the batsmen have their own advantages. However, there has also been a change in attitude. In the old days, a side scoring 350 on the opening day would not lose. These days, they might well do. Destructive passages of play, inspired by one day internationals and T20, see in-form batsmen knocking up enormous scores in a single session. Equally, a destructive bowler like Broad at Trent Bridge can reduce a side to matchwood.

The human element means that it is still possible to argue that today’s cricketers are not ‘better’ than those of yore. Cricket is a traditional game that revels in its legends, and it always will be.

However, if we look at Formula 1, we can see a steady evolution as cars have changed, unequivocally, beyond all recognition. Indeed, they literally do not look like the cars of the early Grands Prix. Every year the rules are changed, sometimes taking away advantages in engineering that have made the sport too tame. Every year the manufacturers toil to produce better tyres, better engines, more responsive suspension, more reliable gears, and so on.

Formula 1 is actually a fairly good comparison with GCSE. The examiners (equivalent to F1’s organisers) create a course which is to challenge students on their aptitude of students, knowing that their pit crew (teachers, crib notes, parents, etc) are striving to give the students the advantage.

So, if you’ve quickly skimmed this far and want to know ‘does he think the exams are easier or doesn’t he?’, the answer is: it isn’t that simple. To my mind, education is improving—not because of constant government meddling, the inspection regime and the huge amounts of admin that teachers now have to do. Teaching is a profession, and, like all professionals, teachers improve their art collectively. We would be shocked if medical science had not advanced since the 1970s, and yet, somehow, any improvement in grades is attributed to ‘easier exams’. I don’t think that’s the case.

I would also argue that students are benefiting from the rise of the internet. I can now find things on Wikipedia, and check their sources, and come to my own conclusions, that would have taken me four hours in the library 25 years ago. I certainly wouldn’t want to take Wikipedia at face value, but, from my interactions with young authors on, I don’t think young people do either. In fact, we have a generation much more likely to question everything.

When I was at school, I genuinely believed what was in the textbooks. It wasn’t until our biology teacher (Mr Rigby, I think, a great man, though if it was Mr Lampard, I beg his forgiveness: he was also an excellent teacher) pointed out that one of the experiments described in the text book did not actually work 2. Our teacher, a real scientist, had not taken it on trust, and had done the experiment himself. I learned more about science from that one occasion than I did from the rest of the course.

Today, young people are told even by games manufacturers to ‘challenge everything’. This was beginning even in the 1980s, and many older people simply put this down to disrespectful youth.

Students still believe some remarkably silly things, are uninformed about some things which are quite basic, and obstinately cling to some things debunked years ago. So, in other words, they are exactly like the rest of us. Because we also inhabit a world where access to information is easier than ever before.

Let’s take a look at the claim that most graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. Actually, the statistics for this were being challenged first thing this morning on the Today Programme. Depending on how you calculate, and what you believe, and where you got your stats from, it can be as low as one-third, or as high as two-thirds. This has prompted the usual ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, ‘the government is lying to us’ and ‘you can’t believe anything’ comments.

I wish people wouldn’t say things like that. Statistics do not lie. They are, however, easy to dramatise, and just as easy to misinterpret even when the person citing them is not trying to dramatise them.

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept the low figure of one-third. This doesn’t sound as severe as two-thirds of graduates being in non-graduate jobs, but it’s still a significant figure. If we were told that one-third of operations ended in tragedy, we would be outraged; we would have a similar (though less extreme) response to hearing that one-third of government expenditure was waste. Neither of these are true, by the way, before someone goes and makes a meme of them and sends it round Facebook.

The real issue is not in the quality of the statistics, but in exactly what we mean by ‘non-graduate jobs’, and why it should bother us.

The report was published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Their exact text is:

Our new research reveals that increasing numbers of graduates have outstripped the creation of more high-skilled jobs, and as a result, the UK has too many over-qualified graduates entering non-graduate jobs. This trend has particularly affected occupations where apprenticeships have been important such as construction and manufacturing. The report suggests that graduate over-qualification is a particular problem for the UK, which has 58.8% of graduates in non-graduate jobs, a percentage exceeded only by Greece and Estonia.

This, in itself, perhaps over-simplifies their position. Within the text of the report itself, we read:

As the UK HE sector expanded, more graduates have found themselves working in jobs that in previous generations would have been filled by non-graduates.

They go on to say:

However, as we will argue, this development is not necessarily a problem.

The CIPD points out that management is increasingly a graduate profession, whereas at the start of the 1990s, just one in six were from graduate backgrounds. Indeed, the old jokes about ‘the managers’, when made by technical staff of the Dilbert variety, presupposed that managers were people who were good at management-speak and other workplace-acquired skills, but not especially bright.

Let us leave the CIPD for a moment: the report, which is well worth reading, does not make the kind of shock claims that are being discussed in the media: the CIPD’s own conclusion is that this should neither shock, nor bother us.

The shock and bother, though, is palpable elsewhere. With spiralling tuition fees and the prospect of a much worse loan repayment scheme, the question is being asked, why invest in higher education at all?

Actually, although the route by which people have reached it is perhaps not the best, this is really the core of the question: why education at all?

People in centre politics such as myself have a reverence for education which makes the question near blasphemous. To question the value of education is to abandon everything that England (and later Britain) has stood for since Alfred’s famous letter to Waferth (or Wulfsige, same text). If we allow education to be questioned, we are staring into the abyss of a new dark age.

Ken Robinson, though, takes the bull firmly by the horns (or, perhaps, the book by the covers) in Out of Our Minds. He argues that, traditionally, education existed for its economic benefits. A literate workforce was better than an illiterate one. The things which we taught, tested and measured were the things that would pay their way later in life. Government-funded free education, therefore, must pay dividends to government.

I’ve never been in what the CIPD refers to as a traditional graduate job. First I was a typist (not a graduate job), then I was, for nearly ten years, a full-time charity volunteer (no qualifications required). I then went to do PR for an arts board (not a traditional graduate job), PR and management for a manufacturer (also not), general Communications for the NHS (degree preferred, but not in CIPD terms a traditional management job), and finally run my own business (no qualifications required). Some, particularly commentators on news websites, would argue that this is because I did a ‘general’ degree (English). If only I had chosen a more vocational degree (they say), I would have found work.

This rather misses the CIPD’s point. Vocational degrees, apart from law, medicine and engineering, are the degrees which directly take their graduates into what are traditionally not graduate jobs. What’s more, the more vocational, the less likelihood that you will end up doing what you are studying. I’ve wept for the armies of graphic design graduates that I haven’t been able to employ. From an employer’s perspective, having 98 designers (this actually happened) apply for an officer level job gives you a thrilling field from which to recruit. From the graduate’s perspective, it’s a nightmare.

To return to Robinson for a moment, his argument is that our biggest asset is creativity, and that if we make this the focus of our educational system, society will reap benefits that go far beyond the economic. I tend to agree with him, though I don’t see anyone with a governmental programme to achieve this.

What I do know, though, is that a degree is one of the best steps young people can take toward creativity. Three years with others, exploring new learning, discussing it, playing ideas against each other, sometimes having flaming rows with the physicists about not everything being a branch of physics, broadens the mind in a way which mere investment in the subject itself does not.

If our university system creates plumbers who write novels, managers who create art photography in their spare time, pizza deliverers who drum at festival fringes, taxi drivers who design jewellery and crane-operators who translate obscure French poets, then society has not lost its investment in their education, but gained by it.

The flip-side of graduates doing (traditionally) non-graduate jobs is that more and more jobs are requiring a degree than ever before. This, to me, is the worrying side of the new research. If university entrance becomes like the new 11-plus, sorting people into future ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, then we genuinely are headed in a dangerous direction.

For everyone who has had the privilege of a university education, or will have, I believe it is our duty to share what we have received, and include those who—for whatever reason—did not have the same privilege. The rising tide of exam results and the steadily rising affluence of our society over the last fifty years testifies that society has not lost the investment it put into university education. For all those who have benefited, we must remember that what we have freely received must be freely given back.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’ve also seen people who claim to have got an A at A-level maths (I only got a B) back in the 70s insist that the BODMAS order of operations was not taught at that time, but that’s a post for another time
  2. It was the one where oxygen produced by a water plant in an inverted test tube is able to relight a glowing splint—it isn’t

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