August in England may not guarantee sun but it never fails to deliver the annual A-level pantomime: highest ever grades shot down by retorts of lowest ever standards. This year's record results, the 29th year of improvement, are already swiftly accruing the usual scepticism around 'standards'.
During this predictable debate, we tend to hear too little from those on the front-line, teachers. As one sixth-form head commented during Civitas research into the A-level, 'It's a great shame that the reasons we give for why higher grades are being achieved today are not published in the media.' Another outlined what these reasons might be: 'A number of things underlie improved results. The move from linear to modular has meant that the higher grades are more achievable: the material is more broken up and focused on the exams. Teachers have become more skilled at preparing students for the exams - and the material/syllabus is more targeted towards exam preparation. Then there is the fact that students can do re-sits.'
This assessment was supported by the views of the 150 teachers surveyed, who each felt that a combination of these factors had, to varying degrees, impacted on higher attainment. The stark centrality of the exams was the re-sounding theme.
Yet the focal point of public discussion about the A-level has generated a misdiagnosis of its strengths and weaknesses. Under the auspices of the term 'standards' critics have focussed too much on grade inflation. The argument is that it is now easier to get an A meaning students are getting an easier ride. 'Easier' is seen ultimately to boil down to less challenging material and lower grade boundaries. The rejoinder to this accusation, generally voiced by the teaching unions, is that there is proof of neither. Whether or not material is or isn't as difficult as 'in the past' can be debated ad infinitum. But the issue with A-levels today is not really about 'standards'; and looking at the hours now put in by students and teachers, it's really not about an easier ride. If the A-level today has an Achilles heel, it's its current remit - to score the highest grades possible, however possible.
Now finally under scrutiny is an aspect which featured heavily in the surveyed teachers' reasons for improved A-level grades, namely re-sitting. Re-sits have become rife, with some students repeating the same exam not once, not twice, but as many as five times in a bid to bolster their overall grade. The negative impact on student learning together with the potentially misleading picture, has led to an Ofqual review of re-sitting arrangements. But a re-thinking of re-sits, although welcome, does not address the root cause propelling them. A re-sit culture is directly connected to a means-to-an-end culture. This is a context in which the experience of the A-level course too often reflects the pursuit of a grade and is therefore structured around performance rather than immersion in the subject. From students opting not to take 'risky' subjects, to the design of the syllabuses and 'guidance' from awarding bodies, final grades increasingly dictate the course itself.
This is a familiar story. So consumed have we become with getting high marks, that from Key Stage 2 Sats to GCSE to A-level, we have ceased to worry enough about the process of how they are achieved. Taking a step back, it is actually an extraordinary scenario when education ultimately ceases to be the purpose of the education system. And significantly, never has such utilitarianism been so useless. Secondary schools now set their own tests, unable to trust Sats scores; at A-level a new grade, the A*, has had to be introduced and many universities have resorted to setting entrance exams. A-level courses are not just seeing their intrinsic value side-stepped, they're losing their credibility as markers.
Moreover, it's not as if any of this is making students' and teachers' lives any easier. On the contrary, students now need to squeeze additional proof of capability, from extended projects to extra A-levels, in between the endless exam prep treadmill. Teachers are not just working longer more pressurised hours, when their job is churning out higher grades teaching is far less rewarding.
Surely when it gets to this stage - more work for less value - we may be getting better grades, but we're starting to miss the point.