Saturday, 22 August 2009

Telegraph Dumbs Down

The telegraph reports, this morning, that "One in Three Top Students Fail Cambridge Test". In a tone of general disgust, journalists Amy Willis and Graeme Paton report that about a third of students with a grade A in Maths A-level have not made it to Cambridge - despite the A grade.

Well, I'd be the first to agree that educational standards have dropped over the last decade or so, with grade inflation now routine. You only have to look at the questions on the exam papers to realise this - Obo did, and now the Tories are doing the same. But if the Telegraph think they have found evidence of a drop in standards, they are mistaken.

I'm guessing that neither Amy Willis nor Graeme Paton went to Cambridge to study Maths. I hope not, because the only aceptable explanation for their mistake is that they do not know what they are talking about. In Maths and the Sciences, an A grade was not enough to get into Cambridge over twenty years ago - and I speak here from direct personal experience. If you wanted to study Maths there, then the absolute minimum was an A in Maths and also Further Maths. For Maths and Sciences, the only way to be confident of a place was to have an A1 - the "1" refers to an S or a STEP result. The "Sixth Term Examination Paper" was Cambridge's own exam paper, started in (I think) the mid/late Eighties, to distinguish between good A grades and scraped A grades. S papers ("Special") were an addendum to the A level, produced by the exam boards to the same syllabus, but with harder questions - much harder, in fact!

The standard offer from most Cambridge colleges for a Science or Maths student was A1AA - i.e. straight As in A level and a 1 in either S or STEP.

And how hard was the S? Well, you came out with one of three grades - 1, 2 or U ("Unclassified"). It was quite posisble to get an A and a U, so the A1s were, roughly speaking, the top third of the A grades.

Plus ca Change... maybe the Telegraph needs some brighter journalists?


  1. I got a "2" in physics and I was mighty proud, having expected to flunk it disastrously. I went on to find my degree very tough indeed. But then I went to a better university than Cambridge!!

  2. Well, I gained an 1 (or a distinction, as I think it was also called) at S-level with a C grade in the same A-level. Hmm, which third did that put me in?

  3. Blue - I'm not rising to that....!

    Measured - you'll be solidly within the "confusing" third, which can be found sitting alongside the other three thirds ;-)

  4. So your maths has improved since university.

    Must fly. ;-)

  5. Probably my biggest regret in life is not putting more effort into my Maths A-Level. I was perfectly capable of doing the maths required (and everything I'd found challenging at A-Level became second nature to me during uni), but utterly failed to put in any effort, and the Maths E grade does look very poor on the CV. It's already cost me at least one pretty good looking job as a programmer.

    The thing is, between me when I started uni and me now is a massive gulf of a difference - I'm a better learner now, a better worker, and I'm actually interested in learning for the sake of learning.

    In fact, I wish I could go back and do uni over again. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard and it made me learn to enjoy learning.

  6. Blue - No? Surely not? Not ... Hull??

    Stu - I'd love to do it all over again. I'd really concentrate this time. Honest.

  7. Stu,

    Have you considered retaking it?

    If you do badly, ignore the result. If you do well, it replaces your Grade E and will reflect well on you in an interview. Resits will be in November and adult education evening classes start next month. I know you have other commitments so it is not 'Go on; you know you want to', but if Ellie supports you, I think it would be worthwhile.