A Drop in Standards?

A Drop in Standards?

By Paul Johnson

Overload, 14(76):, December 2006

Paul Johnson asks why, with the increase in numbers of those passing school-based examinations, today's graduates are less able than in previous times. What is going wrong?

In the UK, examinations are taken at 16 (GCSE) and 18 (A Level) before progressing onto a degree. In recent years, there has been an obsession with the annual increase in those passing exams at 16 and 18. According to the statistics, examination results from C to A* have been increasing year on year [ BBC ] and yet the quality of students going into (and more importantly, coming out of) both Further and Higher Education is on the decrease. If the official statistics are correct, why is there such a difference in the standards between now and 10 years back?

Or is it as cited by Baz Luhrmann in his song Everybody's free (to use sunscreen) [ Luhrmann ]:

While this article is not so much about programming, it may cause some to sit up and question what is going on - especially to those who are professional mentors to newly qualified graduates in a company and wonder why their knowledge and key skills are not as high as expected.

The debate and ACCU

In 2004, I presented to the ACCU annual conference a talk on teaching platform independent code. While the talk was possibly not as good as it could have been (one of my failings is that I frequently completely re-write my presentations within a very short time-frame as they are possibly not quite what is expected by myself or the potential audience), the questions at the end did raise some interesting topics.

It had been noticed by recruitment agencies and employers present that while candidates came from Higher Education with the usual spread of 1 st to 3 rd class honours in Computer Sciences, they had difficulty with threading models, their knowledge of the STL varied from being able to use it at a basic to medium level (they could understand a template, but possibly could not construct one) to having been taught C++ using C-Front (so it was effectively a very old implementation) and key skills such as numeracy and literacy should a distinct lack of understanding or application.

There was a difference if the student came from Oxbridge, but it was not as much as would have traditionally been expected.

Some complained that those mentoring had now to put in more time in doing what the education system should have done than at any other time in their careers. To paraphrase one person in the discussion: There is something rotten in education and it is compounded the further up the scale they go .

Having worked in Further and Higher education since 1992, this revelation, while not completely unexpected, was interesting to say the least. It was further compounded by my teaching experience of 1 st and 2 nd year students on BSc programming courses.

Was the assertion that the compounding was happening further up or was it a case of an institution only being able to work with the materials provided?

Rationale for this article

Recently, I left my otherwise completely secure position at the University of Salford to commence teacher training at a local school. I already have my teaching qualifications for teaching in a college of F.E. and in universities and wanted to round it off with being able to teach 11 to 16 year old children.

I had been at Salford since 1995 and had witnessed a decrease in ability over my 11 years there. It was not only the actual knowledge side which was not as high, but also the attitude of the students. I will admit that I finished my first degree in 1998, but the prevailing attitude was that if I missed some work, it was not up to the lecturer to pass me the notes, but that I had to make the effort to obtain them from one of my fellow students. This especially applied when taking higher degrees.

During my final year of lecturing at Salford (2005), the attitude was no longer that they had to work, but I had to spoon feed them. The upshot was a degradation of the final worth of their degree.

My question though was with the constant claims of improvement at GCSE and A level, why were students coming to university sometimes unable to string a single cohesive argument together and why could they not understand the need for something as pointer checking when allocating memory?

Were was education failing?

Let's start off this trek by going backwards from degree to college level. For this, I have had the assistance of two lecturers at a local college. Due to the nature of their comments and the state of colleges within the UK currently, they will remain anonymous as will the names of their institutions.

Colleges of Further Education or Colleges of Getting Them In?

Colleges, in the UK, are run as businesses and have been since 1992 [ FHEA 1992 ].

The more bums there are on seats, the happier the bean counters are. Staffing levels aren't that important as they don't always seem to realise that without enough staff, money walks out of the door. They do realise though that we cost money.

While this is not always a bad thing, it does raise the question of the suitability of students coming in and going out. It is certainly the case that in the mid 1990s, colleges would take anybody in, irrespective of their ability and the way the funding councils worked was that the more that entered, the more money the college received. It was therefore in the interest of the colleges to spoon feed.

Happily, this has changed now - it is now roughly 10% on enrolment, the rest when they qualify. The benefit is that colleges now do not have to take everyone.

This sounds far more like it - they are working on true business lines of performance related earnings.

At this point, I will let my narrative move to the questions I asked of my colleagues.

  • Is FE today geared more towards a product [ ProdLearn ] rather than a process model [ ProcLearn ]? In other words, the students are spoon fed and it's pretty near impossible for them to fail rather than when we did a course, we had to work to get the grade.

The passing everyone thing happened because the funding model was shifted from we pay you in full for every one that enrols to you get a bit and the rest when they pass though a certain amount of it goes on in recent years there has been a move towards what has been termed recruitment with integrity) so we are not forced to pass everyone.

  • Over the years that you've been in FE, would you say that the level of student coming in (academically) has dropped, stayed the same or improved. I'm gearing this towards the annual statistical figures the government release.

Currently students seem to be coming in with weaker skills in the areas of writing, reading and maths which leads to much higher amounts of support being required; in some cases ridiculous levels of help are required just to achieve a passing grade.

The abilities in maths and English do appear to be lower than in the past and in some noticeable cases, lower than expected over all academic ability.

I would put this down to the schools obsession with targets. Let me illustrate: let's say the government target is 4 GCSE's at C or better. Some schools use a GNVQ intermediate which is equivalent to that to make up the numbers.

  • Is the approach taken at FE failing the student in that because of the method of teaching taken at school and college level, their ability to think and work independently has been diminished to such an extent that they are not really that suitable for the outside world of work.

I do feel that at our institution at least we try to promote their ability to think and work independently in there chosen academic field this is made difficult some times by the mentality they come out of school with (this depends on school).

  • Is there an undue bias when students come in and leave to particular software and/or operating systems and hardware architectures and at the end of the day, is this really a bad thing? Remember though when answering this the major problems with any and all mono-cultures.

It is true that nearly all computer systems in use in teaching in schools and colleges is the old Microsoft/lintel platform not really a bad thing in a way as that is the kind of equipment the students are likely to have at home, this can be bad if they become faced with an entirely different platform when they enter employment.

In specialist subject areas however other platforms / architectures are in use more than Intel/Windows, for instance Art and media departments use more Macintosh computers as they are more favoured by the digital art and design community.

In what I will call "technical computing" (How computers work, Writing programs, networking and file servers) Microsoft Intel does play a large part but other platforms such as Unix/Linux do feature prominently in teaching about the some subjects with in this area.

In an area I will call "applied computers", not computing, computers. things like engineering, computer aided design and manufacture there is a tendency towards technology unique to a piece of equipment, some based on Intel/windows some based on computerised control units called Programmable logic controllers (PLC's).

More generally in what I will call "IT" - using computers (word processing , spreadsheet use, data entry etc.) the Microsoft/Intel is all pervasive in with this group i would also place all teaching areas out side of the specified areas above.

  • Given and depending on the above, is it your professional opinion that education (or the method of education) is failing those it aims to help?

I feel that the following things have a detrimental effect on the education system particularly the further education system that could be described as aspects leading to the system failing people who want an education.

Governments unrealistic ideas e.g 50% of the population will go to university [ DfES 2002 ].

Funding geared to passing students this means there is heavy pressure to get students through this leads to some students receiving undue help to complete when they should be leaving with a fail grade. In the eyes of employers this leads to a devalued qualification and may lead to a college leaver being sacked for not being able to do what the qualification says they can.

Schools disadvantaging the school-leavers with the range of easy subjects they are taught in preference to the more difficult subjects that can lead to better jobs. There was an article in the Times Ed. supplement [ Tiimes ] not too long back that course work is to be dropped from some GCSEs.

The content of GCSE and A levels has been watered down over time. The marking of these is just as rigorous as it has always been - the criteria has been changed and how grades are derived from marks out of 100.

There is now almost no funding for adult courses for people to reskill for a new career or help get them off Benefits and into work for good or into university

So, it's not all the colleges fault then?

Certainly food for though. A college is only able to deal with what comes through their doors and if a good chunk of that time is spent in bringing the student up to the level required for them to be able to understand the basics, then it is of little wonder that those moving up to Higher Education aren't able to cut it. The problem there though is that by the time students reach HE, educationally, they're probably only at what would be considered FE level 6 years ago.

This certainly adds strength to the argument that students coming through are not up to the same standards as they were in the mid to late 1990s.

Let's go back to school

Schools are obsessed - and not directly with the education of children. They want to be at the top of their respective league tables. It doesn't matter that the statistics don't tell the whole truth (some schools improve their results by not entering pupils who are likely to fail or not achieve a C, and rarely take into account local demographics such as unemployment and the effect[ LitTrust ] that has on learning). If they can be close to the top of the league, they are able to fill their classrooms far easier and attract lucrative grants.

To counter this, the government launched their "Every Child Matters" initiative [ ECM ]. This is a very well meaning and, if it works, an attempt to tailor learning to each child. There is only one problem - schools do not exercise this correctly, it is commonly referred to (by teaching staff) as " Every Child Matters as long as they get a C or above ". The league table mentality still applies.

If we ignore this for the moment, can the problem really be placed as far down as secondary education? Are pupils coming out of schools really any worse than in the late 1980s academically? It is not a good idea to compare the examination results at either GCSE or A Level for this either. On a BBC Five Live interview (2004) at the time of the A level results coming out, when asked by Nicky Campbell, the education minister admitted on air that A levels had become easier!

Examining the exams

Exams are still marked as rigorously as they were 20 years ago. This has not changed. What has changed though is what is on the paper. Take the example of a question on a GCSE 2005 Maths [ AQA ] paper shown in the sidebar.

GCSE Maths Paper - 2005

The time taken, in minutes, by each of 15 pupils to travel to school, is shown in the ordered stem-and-leaf diagram.

Key 3 | 2 represents 32 minutes





















  1. One of these pupils is chosen at random. What is the probability that this pupil took less than 20 minutes to travel to school?
  2. What was the median number of minutes taken to travel to school
  3. Another people takes 37 minutes to school. Tick the correct box to show, if any, this has on
    • the median (decreases/same/increases)
    • the range (decreases/same/increases)

If we ignore the poor English used on the paper, this is one of the harder questions in the traditionally harder section B. In total, 50 minutes is allowed for the paper with a break in between each section.

I will assume for the time being that you've managed to stop laughing at this question. You'll need to have stopped otherwise you'll have a wet patch after this one - when A level is reached, a modular exam can be taken as many times as a student wants to (even if they have passed) and only the highest mark is the mark which is put forwards!

If gaining the mark means that the teacher spoon feeds or tailors the teaching to purely teach to the syllabus with very little time for much else, then that is what happens. This is probably going to be as close to the Utopian dream of factory style education. With all that has been said of Every Child Matters, it is impossible to reconcile the two.

This "pass whatever comes" attitude is costing us dearly. Not just educationally, but also economically as we produce graduates who are unable to compete with our European neighbours when it comes to what they come out of our education system with.

At this point, the words of Baz come to mind again. Do we not have this "it was easier in my day" point not apply here? It's a fair comment - most generations consider examinations harder in their day, however....

In 1994, I was part way through my HNC. I was teaching some bright 2 nd year A level students Chemistry. They were full of themselves having just passed with flying colours another module test. I set them a challenge as it was close to Christmas. They were to sit the GCE paper I sat in 1987. Those who gained C or above, I'd buy drinks for on a night out - those who failed bought me the drinks.

Needless to say, I was very drunk that weekend!

Yes, this is anecdotal, but it did show something. These students, all of whom were heading for an A could not pass a GCE paper set 7 years earlier.

Back to University

We have gone full circle now with each step down the education path showing that the failing comes from the one preceding it and at the end, the culture of statistics and unachievable targets in schools seems to be the main driver of a lower set of standards.

What does this mean to universities?

Other than having to include remedial English and Maths to enable students to write their final dissertations, we have second year students on programming courses who have never come across new , delete , calloc , malloc or free , never check to see if a pointer has a value allocated to it and who have such a mediocre grasp of the STL as to make you cringe [ C++ ]. The use of debuggers is almost unheard of in some establishments!

Is it little wonder that companies rarely trust graduates? Sure, there is a variance across the university sector as well as a variance across year groups, but the trend is still downward irrespective of the establishment attended.

Can there be a value placed to a degree or any formal certificate obtained via the traditional education route when the quality at the end is demonstrably lower than it was even 10 years back? The popularity of the BCS examinations with employers has been growing in the past 6 to 7 years as they are seen to still be at the same level of difficulty as they have been for many years. The likes of the BCS can do this as they are not restricted by the whims and caprices of the ruling party of the time.


If you've come this far, you're probably feeling somewhat incensed. Different political parties have done nothing other than destroy our once great education system. Since the inception of the GCSE in 1988, there has been (on average) 2 education bills or reforms each year; some are larger than others. The constant fiddling has eroded what we once had.

Sure, the examination system had to be changed as it had become recognised that the different style of learners [ LearningStyles ] responded differently to exams and that in order for everyone to have a fair crack, something had to change. However, since that time, the constant messing has changed the award of a GCSE as being nothing sellable in the employment market with even an A Level not having the clout it once had.

Credits and disclaimers

I must thank my friends at colleges and schools around the UK who have helped me with this feature. Without them, I would have not had half of the material needed to construct such a commentary.


[ AQA ] AQA, Mathematics (MODULAR) (SPECIFICATION B). Module 1 Intermediate Tier Section B.

[ BBC ] BBC website : http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/5278774.stm

[ C++ ] Possibly the worst C++ course in the world - EVER : http://www.all-the-johnsons.co.uk/cpp-worst-index.shtml

[ DfES2002 ] 2002 Spending Review : http://www.dfes.gov.uk/2002spendingreview/06.shtml

[ ECM ] Every Child Matters : http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/

[ FHEA 1992 ] Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (c.13) : http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1992/Ukpga_19920013_en_1.htm

[ LearningStyles ] Learning styles : http://www.ldpride.net/learningstyles.MI.htm

[ LitTrust ] The link between poverty and exam results : http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/Database/stats/poorexam.html

[ Luhrmann ] Baz Luhrmann: Everybody's free (to wear sunscreen) - http://www.generationterrorists.com/quotes/sunscreen.html

[ ProcLearn ] Process learning : http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm#process

[ ProdLearn ] Product learning : http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm#product

[ Times ] QCA report on cheating (linked from the TES website) : http://www.qca.org.uk/2586_15523.html

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