As this writer and others pointed out at the time, this decline is a predictable consequence of the destruction of the General Certificate of Education Ordinary level examination and its replacement by the GCSE.

It is important to grasp how demeaning a national examination the GCSE for sixteen-year-olds actually is.  Thus Mr Christopher McGovern of the History Curriculum Association has demonstrated that pupils in a class of ten-year-olds, with no actual taught historical knowledge, were able to pass GCSE history.  A recent question in GCSE science required the candidates to choose, from four answers, the difference between two five-figure meter readings.

The examination for double award science by the Northern Examining Association provides the candidate with an 18 page crib sheet, which is so comprehensive that it is difficult to see what the candidates are expected actually to know: even the formula for average speed – distance divided by time – is given.  In fact far from testing “understanding”, a word much approved of by the SEE, the examination is essentially a test of substituting numbers into formulae.  Mr McGovern might well obtain the same result with this “examination” as he did with history.

GCSE foreign language examinations pose similarly trivial exercises.  Here is an extract from an analysis by a candidate of the NEA Italian paper 1989.

“There are three ‘basic’ papers and three ‘higher’ papers.  These are ‘listening’, ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ papers.  For listening, answers are given in English and may be as basic as writing down football scores when they are read out.  Each sentence is repeated twice.  It is for the discretion of the teacher to decide how long the candidates have to write their answers down.  Reading at basic level is largely composed of pictures of simple advertisements or notices where recognising words like ‘Saturday’ or ‘open’ is all that is required.  The ‘paper’ begins with multiple choice!  The higher level needs only a general understanding of simple texts, the subjects of which were British, not Italian, e.g. Royal family or pop stars (the answers – in English – may be known independently of the Italian).”

It is clear that ten to twenty hours with a Berlitz phrase book and cassette would provide the candidate with a better ‘qualification’.

These few examples, and they can be multiplied many times, are the product not of lack of resources, but of a philosophy which abhors content – ‘matter’ in the title of this paper – and which animates many of those in the SEE wishing to abolish A-levels.

2          Vocational or Academic: the false antithesis

Much of the criticism of A-levels and their syllabuses is aimed at their alleged requirement for the regurgitation of facts in a largely uncomprehending way.  This criticism is usually uninformed by any actual acquaintance with the examination papers, or in some cases with any knowledge of the subjects concerned[5].  It is in any case the exact opposite of the truth.  Good answers to a classical mathematics or physics question for instance cannot but demonstrate communication, problem-solving and understanding.

The pretensions of educationalists who claim unique insight into these last three features independently of a particular subject, should be resisted.  Understanding cannot exist without facts: it is actually the relationships between and the grouping of facts into classes, which is what is meant by understanding and it is the grouping of facts and concepts on the one hand, and methods and procedures on the other, which constitute subjects and professions.  Figure 1 presents these ideas in graphical form.

Figure 1: Procedures (P) v Concepts (C)

Figure 1: Procedures (P) v Concepts (C)

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