Home > Bit of politics, Statistrickery > Dumbing down, and that’s just the fogeyish commentators

Dumbing down, and that’s just the fogeyish commentators

In England and Wales up until 1986, there were two sorts of exam a child could take at the compulsory school leaving age of 16.

CSEs weren’t very academically rigorous and were aimed at kids who weren’t planning to take further academic qualifications. O-levels were more academically rigorous; they were aimed at kids who were planning to take A-levels at 18, and possibly head on to university.

After 1986, the system was – officially – changed to have a single qualification at 16 encompassing both streams of kids, known as the GCSE.

However, almost all GCSEs are divided into two tiers of paper, Foundation and Higher, which are separate exams based on related but different syllabuses [*]. All kids who would have taken an O-level in a particular subject, and some who would have taken a CSE, take the Higher paper; the highest grade possible in the Foundation paper is a C.

(I note, in passing, that 1986 fulfils the criterion of ‘being a year that happened after the current generation of crusty old farts finished compulsory education’.)

For more or less the following 23 years non-stop, commentators born before 1970 have failed to point out the fact that nothing has really changed – whether this is due to their idiocy or their dishonesty is not quite clear – and instead have had great fun comparing Foundation GCSE (i.e. rebadged CSEs) papers with O-level papers. They discover, shock-horror-ish-ly, that the paper the thick kids take is harder than the paper the bright kids used to take.

For example, this post from the Libertoonian Alliance links to a GCSE physics paper, fails to point out what the foundation/higher distinction means, and labels it ‘for intelligent 16 year olds’. Since the foundation questions, answered by the dumb kids, make up the first 16 pages of the test, most readers will end up skimming those, assuming they represent ‘bright kid’ questions, and hence that the paper is moronic.

But it isn’t, for the ‘higher’ section at least [**]. It’s a reasonable test for bright-ish kids of theoretical knowledge on energy and electricity, with a couple of fluffier ‘social impact of science’ questions thrown in for a total of approximately 2 marks.

So, a fail, then. But the attempts to mislead get better. In the comments section, the post author, a (but not the, one would assume) David Davis, says:

In the “further” physics papers (only for the really bright people doing what is called “separate” sciences

This is what is known as ‘grossly misleading’.

Later, he says:

Yes [this linked paper is the equivalent of an O-level paper]. Passing this, is what those who will go on to do “A” levels in the sciences will have to do.

This is what is known as ‘grossly misleading’.

In a final and epic demonstation of his elite science-y skills, he says:

I don’t know [why the paper spells sulfur correctly]. It has sort of crept in the last year or so. I thought like you do that these people were supposed to hate America, but they adopt its spelling of “sulfur”.

If you’re going to mouth off about the ignorance and evils of people setting science exams, perhaps you might want to check the conventions actual scientists have agreed with each other on how to spell words. Or not.

There might, possibly, be an actual case that there has been a dumbing-down in educational standards (damn unlikely given relative skill and literacy measures by cohort, but possible). This paper, dramatically and massively, certainly doesn’t present it, and the dishonest codgers putting it forward do themselves no favours.

[*] English words don’t require Latin plurals. Fact.

[**] with the exception of the rather bizarre question 4D (the actual answer, given the levels of ignorance of more or less everything held by people who object to planning applications for wind turbines, is ‘all of the above’; but I’ve no idea what answer the exam board wants).

  1. dan
    March 9, 2009 at 11:56 am | #1

    I spent an amused weekend a couple of years ago reading their archives. They're a pretty odd outfit at the best of times, and are more often than not a lot more worse than that.

    Sean Gabb, who I kinda-sorta like, despite my general visceral hatred for 99% of libertarians, is pretty much consistent in his views and is not, in my estimation, a twat (although he did write a pretty horrendous article after 9/11 in which he stated 'If our rulers now propose to carpet bomb whatever Islamic country may be harbouring the directors of the attacks, I cannot find it in me to raise a word of protest'). I didn't think much of his "How Conservatives [D - shurely 'Libertarians'?] Lost England" book either, and his article from a while back whinging about Jerry Sadowitz, probably one of the greatest comedians of the modern day and *surely* a libertarian's dream of a comedian, was daft enough. Actually, on reflection, maybe I don't like him as much as I thought I did. Whoops. David Davis is about a million times worse, however – cf. his recent comment on DK's blog about arbitrarily locking up anyone who didn't agree with a libertarian government, his many posts quoting Richard Littlejohn, his encouragement for people to vote for the BNP, his crying about churches not getting state funding (unlike the von Mises opera story, this one is true) and just about any other fucking post he's made.

    Anyway, although they have writers as appallingly shit as Davis, they've also given space to people like Kevin Carson to write, which might suggest that they're not the sort of tedious and hateful propertarian lot you'd expect from a group whose motto is "For Life, Liberty and Property". Even if you don't agree with Carson (and I don't), at least he's not a total prick, a characteristic which is usually the sine qua non of being a libertarian. A strange lot, then.

  2. dan
    March 9, 2009 at 11:58 am | #2

    Whoops. "A lot more worse", indeed.

  3. Matthew
    March 9, 2009 at 7:36 pm | #3

    You're right that the old codgers have dumbed down since the glory days of the late 1970s and 1980s. The analogy can be extended: more means less, as the Spectator's various blogs show.

  4. Smith
    March 9, 2009 at 11:11 pm | #4

    I think the problem with the paper (the higher one) is that rather than requiring any understanding of the principles underlying energy production, it seems to require only a general knowledge of the effects of the various means of producing energy, to know the words "convection" "conduction" and "radiation", to be able to read a graph and to be able to do basic arithmetic.

    How much work should this be for a bright child, who presumably has already mastered the basic arithmetic and graph reading in maths? A day?
    How is this providing a basis for the further study of physics?

  5. Neil
    March 10, 2009 at 5:21 am | #5

    If you showed kids the basis of physics, they wouldn't want to study it further. Seriously. Ask a physics graduate.

  6. March 10, 2009 at 10:07 am | #6

    It isn't a bad paper.

    It's important to remember that GCSE Physics needs to cater to two groups:

    (i) A small minority, who will go on to do further study in physics, who are to receive a foundation to their later studies; and

    (ii) The majority, that will not do physics to A2 level, let alone degree level, and who are receive an overview of physics and to acquire physics-related skills.

    The paper to very well suited to group (ii) – it tests both knowledge of mechanisms of heat transmission, applied in the context of an insulated cup, as well as interpreting graphs. While it is less suited to group (i), there is no evidence cited in the LA post demonstrating that this has changed since the 1980's.

    [As when I took physics GCSE in the mid-90s, there is a heavy emphasis on power generation and heaters: this is a result of the perceived need to teach specific heat capacity and the joys of thermal physics, and a way of making it relevant]

    Has the GCSE adversely affected physics undergraduates? I teach 2nd and 3rd year UGs and I have colleagues who teach 1st years. The major problems that affect the UGs are a lack of mathematical sophistication and an unwillingness to apply knowledge learnt in one course to another course. This is particularly noticeable with 2nd year QM: they get bogged now in trying to do the integrals, and as a result fail to "get" the underlying physics.
    Neither of these can be blamed on GCSE physics.

  7. Cleanthes
    March 11, 2009 at 7:44 pm | #7


    Are we on the same planet?

    Which of these essential starting points for any rudimentary understanding of physics are you required to know and use in order to answer the questions in this paper:

    F = ma
    Work Done = Force x distance
    V = IR, and P = I^2 R

    Hooke's Law?
    Boyle's Law?

    Speed = Distance / Time?

    kinetic energy = mv^2?
    potential energy = mgh

    Any of the above?

    Sorry. I can't hear you. What's that you say. "None of them at all"?

    You can get a good score in the HIGHER paper by being able to read a graph, add a few very simple numbers together and spout the eco claptrap.

    You do NOT need to display any understanding of:
    - mechanics or anything to with energy, forces, acceleration, speed and the relationships between them.
    - electricity
    - pressure, temperature and volume in gases
    - gravity

    How can any exam that manages to avoid testing the understanding of these principles be called physics?

  8. Cleanthes
    March 11, 2009 at 7:59 pm | #8

    And Neil,

    Even the densest kids will have had enough of the politics force fed to them by the age of ~8, so we are looking at 8 years of marking time to get to this paper.

    So whilst your snark is probably fair enough, I don't think what we've got here is exactly an improvement.

    Net result, everyone is bored stiff and the tiny minority that take it forward to A level or want to read Engineering at Uni will be entirely unprepared and get a MASSIVE shock when they come across the real thing.

  9. Neil
    March 11, 2009 at 8:53 pm | #9

    Don't panic – I have a solution that will keep everyone happy – each question should have an additional answer:

    e) Smaller Government

    Did you answer mostly (e)? Congratulations, you now have a job with a think-tank.

  10. Cleanthes
    March 11, 2009 at 10:11 pm | #10

    Oddly enough Neil, that might be a plausible answer for most of those questions. Perhaps that's why it doesn't work very well as a *Physics* exam.

  11. Neil
    March 11, 2009 at 11:17 pm | #11

    Lovely libertarian sense of humour.

  12. March 11, 2009 at 11:19 pm | #12

    What Neil said.

    Also, it's specifically an electricity and energy exam (as clearly flagged both in the post above and on the paper itself), which is why it doesn't feature any mechanics, gravity or gas laws. At least the kids who get a decent grade in it are capable of basic reading comprehension…

  13. Neil
    March 11, 2009 at 11:44 pm | #13

    Well it's sure evidence that there's political indoctrination going on when they talk about 'electricity'. Electricty is a communist form of energy. Lenin said so: "communism is electrification plus the soviets". They should be ashamed.

    We should be setting exam questions on the subject of non-gay energy sources, like diesel and whale tallow.

    etc, etc, etc.

  14. March 11, 2009 at 11:49 pm | #14

    I know about IUPAC, John. It's just that nobody uses it much in the real world.

    I have to keep telling my older students, the ones who do go on with it, that for example, what they were forced to learn as "Propene" and "Ethene" are called by everybody else in the world (incliding their university text books) Propylene and Ethylene. You also know that nobody ever talks about "polypropene".

    The IUPAC-approved benzene ring, too, makes it harder for them to understand mechanisms, such as electrophilic substitution.

  15. March 12, 2009 at 1:54 am | #15

    While my previous comment waits in the moderation queue, I'll briefly:

    (i) note that one of Cleanthes's formulae is wrong; and

    (ii) wonder idly if this says anything about the popular – among non-physicists – attitude that Physics GCSE Should Make Students Learn Ridiculous Numbers Of Formulae That You Have Plug In Numbers With No Understanding, Like Wot We Did In The Olden Days.

  16. Falco
    March 12, 2009 at 3:13 am | #16

    The level of all three papers does seem to be dismally low. However, its some time since I did GCSEs and I cannot find the mid 90s papers to compare, (if anyone has these it would be very helpful to have a comparison).

    The environmental / global warming agenda was another factor that I am unhappy with. Not because I think global warming is doubtful, (though I do), but because it reminded me of the driving theory test. If in doubt always put the "do the safest possible thing even if no one would behave like that in real life" / "we are destroying the planet" answer. Makes the "science" part of the exam rather pointless.

  17. Paul
    March 12, 2009 at 6:17 am | #17

    "Make Students Learn Ridiculous Numbers Of Formulae That You Have Plug In Numbers With No Understanding, Like Wot We Did In The Olden Day"

    Which is what these papers do, except they give you the formulae. There is no 'understanding' anywhere AFAICS.

    It is true that the Foundation papers are very simple. Problem is, so are the so called 'higher' papers.

    I had a go at the A-Level Maths papers. I haven't done any A-Level Maths of any sort for over 25 years. I reckon I got, with no revision or anything, about 60%. Revision and practice would push that to 95%, no problem.

    Another massive change is they give you a lot of the answers, even in A-Level maths. This is a huge advantage as you know whether you've got the answer right or not.

    So instead of

    (i) calculate the mean of 1,4,6 and 5.

    the question is

    (i) show the mean of 1,4,6 and 5 is 4.

    Maths has always done this to some extent, but this paper does it where it is completely unnecessary.

    It's even easier in some of the science. Labelling a diagram (for example) is much easier if they give you the labels themselves. All you have to do is figure out which one goes where ; this you can do without knowing anything about the subject.

    Anyone who seriously believes these are remotely comparable with 1981 O-Levels – in knowledge OR understanding – even the "highers" – has no knowledge of those papers.

    The main problem (which some smart students have) is "no, it can't be that obvious, it's a trick question".

  18. ajay
    March 13, 2009 at 12:57 am | #18

    kinetic energy = mv^2?



  19. March 13, 2009 at 1:13 am | #19

    Well, he didn't specify what unit he was using for m or e – as a libertarian, presumably he believes in the right to use demijoules and/or bikilograms as and when he sees fit…

  20. Cleanthes
    March 13, 2009 at 3:58 am | #20

    Interesting that you have moderated out my reply there John.

    Wouldn't do to show your opponents being sensible would it?

  21. March 13, 2009 at 4:03 am | #21

    Err, no – you've left four comments on this post and they've all been approved. I haven't moderated anything out, *ever* (except obvious spam) – it's a principle that I've always adhered to and always intend to adhere to.

    If your browser has eaten said sensible comment, then by all means repost it.

  22. March 13, 2009 at 8:31 am | #22

    Hello Paul,
    Thank you for your response:
    You write:
    "I had a go at the A-Level Maths papers. I haven’t done any A-Level Maths of any sort for over 25 years. I reckon I got, with no revision or anything, about 60%. Revision and practice would push that to 95%, no problem."

    I don't see this as a problem: surely if one could do an A level and and forget it all the next day, this would hardly be the mark of a very good education system! I am certain with revision you could get 95% – after all, you are not an 18 year old , juggling 3/4 A levels, and have the maturity, disapline, and time management skills that an extra 20 years bring. If A level maths were a sort of innate ability rather than a set of skills that people learn, it would be different.

    "Another massive change is they give you a lot of the answers, even in A-Level maths. This is a huge advantage as you know whether you’ve got the answer right or not."

    Regarding 'giving the answers': As you note, this is and was common practice in maths and physics exams.
    [When I was at school, our rather eccentric maths master used to set us a page of problems each week from an 1860 text called something like "Mathematics Problems for Boys". In all of these, you were told what the answer was, although it could be quite challenging to do the algebra to get it in the form the question asked. Likewise, when I sat Finals papers in physics several years ago, most of the answers were "given" to you. This did not make them any easier.]

    I haven't seen the maths paper you refer to, but two points I'd make are:

    (1) That sounds like the first question of a several part statistics question. If you get the mean wrong, this would screw up the calculation of standard deviation and all that follows it. Now, the way this is dealt with in exam is "error carried forward": the examiner has to whip out his calculator and work out what the answer would be if the mean were [whatever the candidate wrongly wrote]. This could take a long time: easier to give them the answer and save marking time and expense;

    (2) The ability to do elementary arithmetic is implied by the fact it's an A level. It isn't the skill the question is testing. The candidate is showing she knows how to calculate a mean – something the candidate will do in the real world with a calculator or a spreadsheet.

  23. March 13, 2009 at 8:34 am | #23

    oh, and

    (3) A candidate might see the question and just write down the mean, without showing any working. By writing the question in the form shown above, the signal to the candidate she needs to show working and demonstrate the ability to calculate the mean.

  24. Cleanthes
    March 14, 2009 at 3:14 am | #24

    John B,

    That may be my bad, in which case I unreservedly apologise.

    The actual comment was a reply to Edmund's first post above. i corrected the mv^2 and dealt with the "plugging numbers into formulae". Both of these have been addressed so it's essentially too late.


    Re your (3) above. How is this different from plugging numbers into formulae? More importantly, any marking scheme that does not have in large letters at the top "No method, no marks" is worthless.

    Hence your (1) above is also wide of the mark. The use of the wrong mean at the top of the calculation will be largely irrelevant – it is the workings that get you the marks.

    We are straying from the mark a little in this context, though as we are dealing with a multi-guess where, obviously, different rules apply. Perhaps, however, that is the essence of the point. There is a role for multi-guess in Chemistry for example, where one does require to rote learn the catalyst for a particular reaction or whatever.

    Physics is nothing without understanding: there is almost nothing useful to be gained from a multi-guess. You wouldn't have a multiguess for Maths, neither should you have one for Physics.

  25. Henk Van Vleck
    March 23, 2009 at 12:01 am | #25

    take a close look at Q8 on that paper too…have commented more fully on the original post at libertarianalliance

  1. March 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm | #1
  2. March 27, 2009 at 7:31 pm | #2

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