Tuesday, 31 July 2012

‘A’s are for losers…

I have had to abandon this blog for a while to meet a deadline, however, normal service is now resumed. I shall be looking in the next couple of days at the idea of compulsion, which seems to be so baffling to at least one reader; compulsion in her mind being associated only with punishment or physical force! Before that, I want to talk about the awful situation at British secondary schools, with reference to what are known as grade boundaries. These have a pernicious effect upon children unfortunate enough to attend school.

When my daughter was studying for both GCSEs and A levels, I had a saying that I used frequently with her. This was, ‘A's are for losers!’ I meant to convey by this that if she gained only an ‘A’ in an examination, rather than ‘A*’; then as far as I was concerned, she would have failed that particular examination. Nothing less than 100% was satisfactory, whether she was working at home with me or sitting an IGCSE. There are a number of possibilities for this attitude on my part. One would be that I am a man obsessed with GCSEs and their importance in life. Another might perhaps be that I am a male, Caucasian version of the notorious Chinese ‘Tiger Mothers’. A third and, to me at least, more likely explanation would be that I am not a bloody fool and that I know how the world actually works outside of school and examinations. Let me make this a little clearer.

In a deplorable lapse of judgement, I allowed my older daughter to be registered at school. Apart from a spell of flexi-schooling, she was at school all the way through until leaving at sixteen. When she was fifteen, a year or so before she was due to take her GCSEs, I noticed that her maths was atrocious. She was getting around half the questions wrong and yet her teacher was marking the work with things like, ‘Well done’. When I spoke to this woman she explained that from her point of view this was fine. It was not because my daughter was unable to do any better, it was that there would have been no point. In the GCSE, which mark you get depends on the percentage of marks you score. These are the grade boundaries. Incredibly, if you get over 50%, you get an ‘A’ in mathematics for GCSE. Over 70% and you will have an ‘A*’ Because my daughter was in line for at least an ‘A’ and possibly an ‘A*’, she was doing as well as could possibly be achieved. What purpose would have been served by trying to get her to get three quarters of her work right? It would have been overkill; way over the grade boundary for an ‘A*’. I resisted the temptation to slay this idiot on the spot; in retrospect, a matter of some regret.

Let’s forget for a moment about schools and GCSEs. I have only recently, after a long struggle, resolved the problems I have been having with the Student Finance people over the loan my daughter is getting for university. I sent in almost everything necessary. The only problem related to an income of £60.75, for which I provided no documentation and had overlooked when filling out the form. You might have thought that they would have given me a gold star for this, or at the very least congratulated me on getting over 95% of the calculations correct. Even a ‘Well done’ would have been nice. They did none of these things, because of course this is real life. Anything less than 100% accuracy means that you fail. It is the same with my tax returns. It is not enough for me to get 70% of the answers right. This will not earn me an ‘A*’ with the Inland Revenue. Not even 80% will do, nor 90% or even 95%. Every figure and all calculations must be 100% correct.

This principle, that of getting 100% all the time in maths is how we have to live our real lives. Whether we are looking at out bank statement, measuring the room for a fitted carpet or working out the change from a £20 note; nothing less than 100% will do. Saying ‘Well done!’ to a child for getting a third of her sums wrong is a false kindness. It does not matter a damn if that will be enough to get her an ‘A*’ at GCSE; getting a lot of sums wrong in real life will be a disaster for her. The same is true of practically every other aspect of life. If I write out a job application and only make errors in spelling a quarter of the words, this will not earn me an ‘A*’ from the potential employer. He will probably dismiss me as illiterate.

Real life is very unforgiving. Most of the time we need to get things right. The penalties for getting things wrong can be pretty severe and you are not awarded marks for effort either! Anybody who does not expect a child to get things 100% right in maths, English or any other subject is leaving the child ill-prepared for the real world. Real life is not about GCSEs or A levels. It is about getting figures 100% right, making sure that not one word is misspelled nor a single capital letter or full stop omitted. Teaching children this and being ferociously demanding about it is the only strategy that will fit them out for the adult world in which they will all too soon find themselves.


  1. Well sometimes errors are important and sometimes they're not, surely? They are also, of course, inevitable. So I think it's an important part of being a parent to make it clear that mistakes are not the end of the world.

    Perhaps more important than that, for me, is to make it clear to my children that 'achievement' is not the be all and end all. This is not through some woolly liberal denial of the realities of life, it is *because* of the realities of life. I have known people who got the best grades possible, academic prizes, well-paid jobs and yet needed a bottle or two of wine to get through the day. Equally, I have known people who had a couple of CSEs and who did socially useful jobs and were surrounded by friends and family who loved them.

    Life is far more complicated than you make out and I think it's lying to children to pretend otherwise. I think there are many skills you need to survive as an adult and not least among those is an acceptance of complexity of the human condition. It really is more than just a race.

  2. ' It really is more than just a race.'

    Which is not how I view the case at all. If however I make single mistake with getting positive and negative numbers mixed up, mistaking my £1000 overdraft for £1000 that I have to spend, then I will get into a right pickle. This is the real importance of mathematics, not some examination which, as you rightly point out, might not even matter much in a few years time.

  3. Ed Balls M.p got his sums wrong over how much he sold off the nation gold but is still a very rich man!

  4. I do see what you're saying, but 100% success academically doesn't not equate to the same level of success in life. I know people who have left Oxford with a Masters degree and STILL can only get voluntary jobs or coffee shop jobs. I don't understand it myself, but it's true.

    My husband left school with dismal 'A' levels. I think he got a U in one of them, and now is earning an incredible daily rate as a highly sought after IT specialist.

    Then there are the social aspects of a successful life. Increased earning power, which one generally imagines with and excellent string of qualifications, does not increase happiness.

    Still, I do agree with the tax thing and form filling though, 70% right isn't good enough.