‘A’ levels: Not so much a gold standard, more like competitive devaluation

April 10, 2012

By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Like many of the current government’s proposals, the announcement that the Education Secretary is planning to hand over control of ‘A’ Levels to the universities leaves me mystified. The only thing to be said with any confidence is that he is doing the same as each of his predecessors over the last half century: only fix the parts that ain’t broke. Be sure not to touch the worst bits.

The ‘A’ level system has two awful features which explain why our youngsters today are so poorly educated, whether judged in terms of their ability to compete in the global jobs market – it is global, wherever you actually go to work – or whether judged simply in terms of their levels of literacy, numeracy and culture in the broadest sense.

The first feature is that ‘A’ levels are almost uniquely specialised. There are few other countries where kids are forced to specialise in only three or four subjects (of their own choice) at the age of 15 or 16. For example, the French and Germans do at least six until they leave school, the Americans even do a generalist first-year at university.

No doubt our sixth-formers are supposed to do umpteen courses too – heaven forbid that they should have a narrow perspective at such a tender age – but since they are only going to be examined in the Chosen Three, you cannot expect them to take the rest very seriously. Of course, many youngsters have no idea what career they would like – but we can apparently rely on their parents or teachers to tell them what they really want. On the other hand, some kids know very well what career will suit them best, or at least think they do, though you can bet many will change their minds in subsequent years.

The result is not only generations of arts graduates who are ignorant of basic maths and even simple physics or chemistry, but equally seriously, millions of square pegs hammered into round holes, lacking the basic education to make the career change they want, or indeed that is being forced on them by changes in the labour market. The situation is made worse by the premature emphasis on vocational subjects, which are by definition more restrictive than the fundamental disciplines that ought to form the bedrock of an education.

Like the NHS, the basic format of ‘A’ levels is probably regarded as sacrosanct, “the Gold Standard”, but if so, our youngsters could be said to be crucified on a cross of gold. The overblown rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan is unwarranted here, however, because far from being any kind of Gold Standard, ‘A’ levels are 100 percent paper assets, and we know what tends to happen to this type of security as time passes. Just look at the parallels from economics.

Ultimately, any qualification is a certificate representing a claim on what economists call human capital, in other words accumulated knowledge and skills, in the same way that a share certificate is a claim on the assets of a firm and a dollar bill is a claim on a dollar’s-worth of American goods or services.

Now if a firm issues shares without any increase in its net worth, it reduces their value or, as we say, dilutes the equity. If a country prints money more rapidly than it can increase output, prices go up and the value of money goes down. In the same way, if we allow the volume of certificates of competence, be they ‘A’ Levels, BA’s, PhD’s or HGV licences, to expand more rapidly than the supply, we devalue the certificates because each one represents a claim on a smaller level of competence than it did before.

Of course, the suppliers of human capital – the schools and universities – will tell you that the value of their bits of paper remains unchanged, so that an A-grade at ‘A’ level is as immutable as gold, and a first-class degree is still the same currency as it was 30 or 40 years ago, even though it is awarded twice as often. But since this amounts to attributing all the “improvement” to higher productivity, they would say that, wouldn’t they? (quoting the oldest profession on the second oldest).

Most of this is well understood but usually denied by all those involved in education. What is not always appreciated is the dynamic at work, the reason the urge to devalue becomes so irresistible. Again, the parallel with the economics of inflation is irresistible.

Economics 101 tells us that inflation only matters – by redistributing wealth from the public to the government and from lenders to borrowers – when it is unanticipated. If people expect inflation, they can almost entirely neutralise its effect. A government can only gain by printing money if it can catch us on the hop. Indeed, hyperinflation occurs because of the need of a money-printing government to keep ahead of the curve, continually surprising people by generating more inflation than they already expect. As far as individuals are concerned, the key to surviving in an inflationary environment is to keep one step ahead, by buying before prices rise, and thereby offloading your money before people realise it is worth less than they thought.

Exactly the same process occurs in our education system. Students who are already in the schools and universities have a vested interest in dragging standards down, in the hope that they can get their hands on paper certificates and offload them on unsuspecting employers before word gets out that standards have dropped yet again. The teachers have every reason to roll over – after all, their salaries and job security depend on a steady inflow of students, which they dare not jeopardise by giving low grades to customers who have paid thousands of pounds each. Of course, making the education system more responsive to students exacerbates the situation by streamlining the whole inflation mechanism – after all, the customer is always right.

The result is an unstoppable slide. Just as, when uncontrollable inflation is anticipated, the public wises up and switches to using foreign currency, in the same way employers lose their respect for British qualifications and start preferring foreign workers – no wonder so many of the top jobs in this country go to people educated overseas – or simply move the jobs overseas to where the skills are to be found. The fact that many foreigners are also prepared to work for lower wages makes the problem far worse.

Viewing Mr Gove’s proposals against this general background, and given that the narrowness of ‘A’ levels dates back at least 60 years, and their inflation-proneness started 30 years ago (and is part of a system-wide and worldwide phenomenon), I never expected him to address the issues seriously, let alone to solve them. But what on earth is the point of handing the process over to the universities?

I suspect it is simply a case of the Politician’s Syllogism (Coalition-version): we must do something; this is something we can agree on; therefore we must do this.

Image — Alexandra Abelidis casts a shadow as she opens her A-level exam results at Withington Girls School in Manchester, northern England August 19, 2010. REUTERS/Darren Staples

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