I Heart Hard Exams

JOE BATES wants harder exams. But not for him: for his little sister.

I sometimes find it strange to think that I spend so much of my time trying desperately to push for 60%. Watching those who get marks in the 80s with awe is a brand new experience.

My expectations have been shaped by my time at school where, like many at Cambridge, I would have considered a low percentage to be a total balls-up. I went to a good school and in GCSEs like maths near-perfect scores were relatively commonplace. This isn’t boasting: my marks reflect the poverty of the tests, not any brilliance on my half.

Stats suggest that this didn’t use to be the case: GCSE results have risen astronomically over the last two decades, giving swots like me more and more top grades.

People can (and do) argue till the cows come home about why this is. But children today can’t just be much brainier or incomparably better taught than they were in late 80s. The tests must have got at least a bit easier or more predictable, particularly at the top.

Lefties like me tend to give this issue a wide berth, arguing that grade inflation only really affects those at the top anyhow – what’s the point of reforming the system to prop up the egos of the clever and advantaged?

But actually, a Cambridge-style exam would help those from bad backgrounds. Grade inflation is a left-wing issue.

At the moment, a lot of clever people of different abilities are clumped at the top the bell curve. To tell them apart, employers and unis have to use different criteria. These are often weighted in favour of the middle classes, with their cultural capital, pushy mummies and helpful nannies.

So why don’t we drag the curve back down to the middle? Make like Cambridge, and include a page or two of increasingly brutal questions at the end. Make that 100% all but impossible, and watch as the real geniuses flourish.

Exams that really stretched bright students wouldn’t just help differentiate them. It would also do something to occupy the the significant number of people for whom school exams are simply too easy. The rigor mortis that sets when students coast without effort means that many don’t do themselves justice. For those without the resources or knowledge to find intellectual engagement outside of school, a tough exam may be exactly the kind of kick up the backside they need.

But what about the students left behind? Surely those who would have been getting 60% will be distraught over their 40s and 50s? But these are just numbers – they’re only given meaning by context. If that’s what you see everyone around you getting, why would it bother you? Just look at Cambridge. The drop in percentages isn’t what makes exam term hellish. It’s everything else.

So as you look at your incomplete exam papers and low scores over the next week, do try to pity those for whom a 100% score is all but guaranteed. They’re the ones that will really suffer in the long run.

  • Pervy GP

    I'll give you a hard exam any day.

  • Examiner

    "the significant amount of people…"

    I'm guessing English wasn't a subject in which you scored 100%…

    • Great


  • Clever?

    I think you'll find your the bell curve suggesting that people can be "clumped" together at the top of it. Guess there really is grade inflation if you can get "near perfect marks" in a maths exam

    • Clever?

      'You're'. Grade inflation probably helped your English grades just as much.

      • Clever!

        I've never before seen a comment criticising bad grammar that has the same (positive) score as the comment it's criticising.


  • A wider viewpoint

    Whatever the exams are at GCSEs and A levels, teachers will always have a curriculum to teach to. It wouldn't be a case of letting the geniuses shine, it'd be a case of watching those teachers shine who can cram the entire curriculum into lessons not long enough. The difference with Cambridge isn't the exam system so much as the fact that the answers to the questions aren't taught.

    The fact is that this is a very narrow view. "Surely those who would have been getting 60% will be distraught over their 40s and 50s?" – You're talking about people who get C grades being given D grades or E grades, if we relate it to the current system. The fact is, that pupils around the country do achieve D grades and E grades, it's just the majority of Cambridge students don't see it.

    At the top of the tree, say, the 50 schools that send the most kids to Oxbridge, they are shamed if their 5 A*-C rate drops below 99%. In the rest of the country, there is a genuine bell curve – most schools sit in the 50s and 60s. The national average is somewhere in the mid 50%s of students achieving 5 A*-C grades.

    Put that into perspective. The average school approx produces one half of students (55%) with 5 A*-C grades or more – and that can be 5Cs – and that can be what they AIM to do; their measure of achievement. The other 45% are left with LESS than 5A*-Cs. If we think about that at Cambridge it makes little sense – the vast majority of your school chums wouldn't think such poor results even factored on the scale.

    But they do – and thus GCSEs and A levels (again an exam where a LOT of students gain D and E grades and count that as a good qualification) are still satisfactory for employers and universities to grade their students on. The difference is, that most Cambridge students are looking to work for multinationals, specialists, or other top-notch businesses. The rest of the world is perfectly happy (and is right to be perfectly happy!) working as a secretary at that local architect's, a maintenance man at that local manufacturer, or mechanics, classroom assistants, chefs, accountants, cleaners, waiters/waitresses, etc etc.

  • maybe…

    While I might agree that either a rebalancing of the raw marks or a more proportional division of percentages to define grades might be a good thing, aren't STEP and AEA papers pretty much what you're asking for? Perhaps the uptake of these on a more national basis (they weren't offered at my school, and I know barely any people who took them) would solve your issue raised here…

    And speaking of A-Levels (maybe not so much GCSE) I do recall that the end questions on papers were usually more complex and demanding, though surely it might be at odds with any exam board to ask questions on the paper which the syllabus hasn't really covered. Independent study is only undertaken by so many people, but perhaps its those that top universities want to attract.

    At any rate, perhaps the grading system itself is flawed, and rather than grade bands, where an A is anywhere from 80-100%, the UMS scores should be what the candidate provides and is judged on.

    • AEA's

      Unfortunately, AEA's were scrapped a couple of years ago, for reasons unknown, and STEP, while good, is only for Maths.

    • lateral thinking?

      I understand where you are coming from with regards to being asked stuff out with the syllabus, but it's not actually necessary to ask questions out of the syllabus, just things that involve common sense so kids can't just learn things parrot fashion – actually show some lateral thinking.

      What we need is lateral thinkers, not just people who can read a course textbook and regurgitate every word perfectly, the lateral thinkers are the one's who will be finding cures etc.

  • Translator

    If you have to say "this isn’t boasting", you are boasting.

    • Fit'z

      I'm not a racist but…

  • Ruth Graham

    Another disgustingly SEXIST article from the Tab. Exams are already biased against women by requiring, as they do, knowledge of the subject being tested and some degree of logic. Making them even more difficult will only hurt our mission for EQUALITY by rewarding the sort of skills possessed exclusively by MALE PIGS – skills like mathematical ability, and flair in written communication.




    This works in science subjects, yes. But in arts subjects, it's what you do with what might be a deceptively straightforward essay question that matters. The problem is that in schools intelligent interpretation and original thought is frowned upon in things like English and History – to get the top grades, you have to tick the boxes of an examiner who knows nothing about your subject. My A Level English paper came back as a C, before it got re-marked and shoved up to an A*. You can't just include more difficult essay questions and hope the clever pupils will go for them – you have to have examiners who are trained to spot intelligence. Which they aren't.

  • Fine

    Well I fucking hate hard exams. So…errr…agree to disagree?

    • http://www.ikincielesyaalanlar.info/urunlerimiz.html ikinci el esya

      If the quality is not difficult to test the quality of education would not be a good friend of mine at least. I need it, but then the quality will not be easy to test.

      • wanker

        tab comments are meant to be moderated right?

  • Good idea but

    Common sense and recent UK governments don't go together.

    Also, one of my teachers at school was a senior examiner at OCR. They'd work out where the grade boundaries should be to get the same percentages of A, B C etc as the year before. As this was invariably not a whole number, they'd round it down meaning more people did better as the government couldn't bear results to get worse. The entire 'better grades than last year' is completely artificial. It's appaling that some people do actually believe that people are more intelligent now.

  • nah

    Private schools would be able to devote more time and resource to training students to answer the very hard questions compared to state schools – consequently, rather than enhancing mobility and equality your directive would work in a way contrary to its original intention.

  • I did


    • Me too

      Me too – and it is certainly more rigorous, and the exams far harder, than the A-levels. A very small number of people across the world get 45/45 in the IB, unlike the A-levels.

      I seriously do not understand why English unis discriminate against the diploma (they ask for very high grades – a 38/45 in the IB is certainly equivalent to A*AA, but you'd never get into Cambridge with that score).

      • Fellow IB-er

        actually, if you go on the cambridge admissions website, they have done a lot of research into the IB grade offers and don't just pluck numbers out of thin air

        the average cambridge offer is 40 (incl 776 at HL) because that's the point at which you're statistically as likely as a person who gets A*AA to get a First.

        in other words, the "equivalent" IB grades that UCAS/your school feeds you are bullshit

      • Not me

        "and it is certainly more rigorous"
        I'd love an objective reason for why this is a certainty.

        Please fuck off. Stop telling us why your qualifications are better than ours.

        • IB Smarter

          There is of course no certain, objective way of quantifying this – but there are several reasons why I.B. students feel this way:

          1. IB students MUST sit 6 subjects, and it is painfully obvious if you fail to list your final mark for one of those subjects, unlike A-levels, where – as I understand it – if you underperform in one subject but have sat enough subjects you can just quietly fail to mention a weaker one.

          2. IB students MUST study maths, one science subject (biology, physics, chemistry or environmental systems), one humanities subject (history, geography, economics, psychology), a first language at literature level (in my school, English Lit) and a second language (in my school, Mandarin Chinese). You're encouraged to do an Art (visual, music or drama) for your sixth subject, but you can do a second humanities, science or a third language if you want. To a limited extent, you can escape subjects you dislike (I hate physics and geography, so did biology and history, for example) but you can't do something like drop maths or a second language altogether.

          3. IB students are required to write a 4,000-word "Extended Essay" on a topic of their choice – essentially a Part 1 dissertation – and the mark for this appears on the final transcript as a subject all on its own.

          4. IB students are also required to attend mandatory "Theory of Knowledge" classes which is sort of like Philosophy for Dummies. It's bullshit and easy to pass, but is just a lot more coursework and presentations you have to get out of the way. In a way, IB students have 8 subjects in total if you include the time needed for ToK and the EE.

          5. Finally, IB students have to fulfill a minimum of number of "CAS hours" – CAS stands for Community, Action and Service. Basically you have to provide evidence that you've done a minimum level of Community (something like a school play or orchestra), Service (charity work) and Action (sports or physical activity of some sort). It's quite easy to exaggerate the number of hours you've done, but not so easy to get away with entirely making something up. Most of my friends wasted hours of their lives volunteering at Oxfam stores which didn't really need extra staff – precious hours which were needed to study.

          • natsci

            so basically you can only do two sciences. kinda screws people with a general interest in science.

            • IBSCIENCE MAN

              Actually, you can do three sciences if you can show that it would put you at a disadvantage in the application process at a uni to not have three sciences.

              I did this, Cambridge said it would be advantageous to have three sciences.

        • Me too

          Because when I went to uni, my maths skills were far more developed than those of people who did A-levels (and I am not particularly good at maths). Because you are not taught how to answer questions mechanically. Because you do more subjects. Because you have to write an extended essay, as well as complete projects that account for a large proportion of your final grade.

          Fellow IB-er, I have heard this before, but I cannot understand it: unless Cambridge has actually accepted lots of people with grades less than 40 (which I strongly doubt), how can they have performed such a regression analysis?

        • IB Smarter

          Yeah but seriously, you wouldn't be having this problem if the UK pushed the IB more – I've met dozens of A-level students who have admitted to cruising through without any effort and getting top marks. You just can't do that in IB, however naturally bright you are.

      • IB ergo I work

        My IB offer for Cambridge was 42 points with 777 HL (and I know of others who needed the same). Anyone who tries to say that is equivalent to A*AA is probably exemplar of the type of person who is able to achieve those marks at A-level.

        Oh yeah, and less than 1% of entrants get 45points.

    • I did

      a shit on John's lawn

  • Rightie

    I love it when they finally cotton on and then pretend they came up with the whole thing.

  • Schlong Dong Silver

    Master Bates, y'arrrrr. I be a pirate with an eye patch and a parrot. I be sailing the seven seas looking for f****** w*** dog**** artciles like this one for a long time, y'arrrrr. What a pile of f****** *sh**. y'arrrr. Keep it up Joe, this be the best article I have read by you. y'arrr me hearties.

  • hmmmm

    what a fantastic article. congrats joe 'the flow' bates.i couldnt't crap out a better one…honest 😉

  • Johnno

    No exams are hard for me. I'm very clever indeed. I go to Johnsbridge, a college in East Anglia. It's a top (the top) place with plenty of great blokes who are up for megabant, megabooze and chebs. I know someone from every other college, and they all wish they were at Johnsbridge so they could join in the top blokery with the garcons rouges. I've got who goes to Homerton, and he really hates it there: I'm not surprised because it's really, really bad. Took a really smelly dump outside and was congratulated by many people for bringing a bit Johnsbridge class to the college. Kind regards, John Bridge (aka Johnsbridge Superbloke, the Mayor of Ladbury)

  • Grade Inflation

    I got an A-level in my GCSEs.

  • Average

    Cambridge's system isn't without its problems though! In some subjects everyone gets clumped between 60-72% with pretty much no use of the other marks at all. In Part II history only 3 students got below a 2.I last year, and nobody really gets higher than the mid 70s. Time for a change all round!

    • Clumped Together?

      I doubt you'd regard 15 marks as a narrow continuum if you got 45. The problem isn't the narrowness of the top band, it's the forward march on the people's degree. 25% quotas for all four grade boundaries should be introduced in arts subjects as well as sciences, that would make things interesting

      • Logic Friend

        If we assume that examiners in arts subjects aren't just arbitrarily handing out 2.1s to be nice, then I don't see how forcing them to downgrade perfectly competent answers to fit a quota constitutes progress…

      • moron

        So making 1 in 4 people get a 3rd by definition is good for their future lives. Good one

        • Well…

          It would be if Graduate Recruiters were then aware of the fact that Cambridge grades shouldn't be judged on the same scale as everywhere else. What they don't seem to realise is that the very fact people get into Cambridge in the first place makes them better than the majority of students at other universities, but in the name of equal opportunity they'll look on a 2.1 from Bangor more favourably than a Cambridge 2.2.

  • JoeM

    The main follow up question is how to implement it? Do they slowly make exams harder like they slowly made them easier? That disadvantages people only a year or two apart, e.g. Graduates at the same time, but where one took a gap year. Or do they just introduce a step change one year? And how would they know where to set the bar? People have grown too used to the knew system to want to be the first batch of students with Bs and Cs where they used to get As. I do agree that the peak of the bell curve should be lower. The next step is to look at practicalities.

  • Disagree

    I didn't find A-Levels particularly easy, and putting more pressure on already stressed teenagers doesn't sound like much fun.

    • Logic Friend

      I agree with regards to the pressure issue, but I think the solution to that is not to keep tests easy, but to have fewer of them. End of year exams, SATs for those who take them, plus GCSEs, plus AS levels, plus A2, there really is too much emphasis on performance metrics and not enough on actually teaching.

      Obviously performance metrics are important, otherwise how would we tell whether the teaching was any good? But I think the current level is likely excessive.

      • Logic Frind

        Oh god, and mocks! How the hell did I forget mocks?

  • Ruth Graham

    Typical Tab sexism here. Exams are already biased against women, because they require knowledge and logic, so why make them even hard and gender them further?



    • Not a fan of Ruth…

      Not funny.

    • jhj

      please fuck off

  • Solution

    introduce A**, and then A***. And when that system fails, get invigilators to throw crumbs in to the eyes of the students while they sit the exam so that only the toughest survive.

  • jkg

    The priority for most schools is getting as many students as possiblee to pass their GCSEs. They don't really care that much about A grades. A levels may be different.

    What they'd do is teach the kids to pass the test and maybe not even bother with the toughest bits. For GCSE physics our teacher didn't teach us the entire course, but we had enough to get decent grades. I've heard of other schools where, for example, they didn't bother teaching integration to A level maths students because they can scrape a pass without it. A lot of people find that topic quite hard.

    You say you went to a good school. Maybe there they put a lot of focus on the top students and they cared deeply about how many of their students got into Oxbridge. In other schools the focus is on the average and failing students.

  • Mr 100% (or, not)

    Well the UMS marks are bollocks anyway, aren't they? I got 100% in a few of my A2 exams, yet when I got the actual papers back my raw score was about 65%.

  • left wing issue?

    "But actually, a Cambridge-style exam would help those from bad backgrounds. Grade inflation is a left-wing issue."

    Why is trying to help those from bad backgrounds seen as a left-wing issue?

    • Yes

      It is a left wing issue in a sense. It's certainly part of the wider socialist picture. The only reason you might not consider it left wing is that our supposedly "right wing" parties are also socialists, and therefore social mobility is a pretty universal aspiration in British politics.

      • The Right Wing

        You either have no idea what we stand for or assume that just because you don't like us, you can take bad things and associate them with us. It has never been a right-wing policy to be unconcerned about the plight of large proportions of society.

    • morningstaronline

      because everyone knows the only thing tories want to do is to shit in the gaping mouths of poor toddlers

    • Durr

      Cos capitalists are all self-interested arrogant pricks who want the best for themselves and their children, and don't know the price of a pint of milk.

  • The Cambridge System

    Is flawed anyway… At least for arts subjects. The bell curve is not a curve but a sharp spike at the 2:1 mark, which basically 80-90% of students get.

  • Two problems

    Two big problems here:

    1. As the 'Mr. 100%' person said, the raw results are much worse that the percentage given on the results slips. Surely this is a huge flaw in the argument of this article?

    2. Whilst a nice idea in principle, making exams harder will not cut the divide or make the really clever people stand out but widen it. There is nothing that can't be coached for. If you're taught how to come up with an original or 'genius' answer then you have a much better chance than someone without such teaching. The 'extra' teaching for that bit of cream on top will only be taught in schools with the resources for smaller ability-based groups; to be able to allocate time to the brightest pupils. This is already the case with Oxbridge interviews and A levels. Basically: mystifying the A level system will only serve to privilege those with the tools and resources to achieve that little bit more.

  • Real problem…

    People who should be average, perhaps slightly below average, but claim that being average is a disability and so get an extra hour and a computer. Means that the people who are still 'average' are now skewed to below average. Give everyone the option of a computer or noone please.

    • Really?

      Are you genuinely saying that there is no such thing as disabilities and that we shouldn't account for them in any way?
      Also do you really think that the 5% or so a year who do have allowances made for them skew the system enough to effect the average so much for everyone else?

      • Economist

        Maybe give them a computer if they have some physical disability that means they can't handwrite things, but extra time? If they then go and work in an office, will they have to work 10 hour days instead of 8 hour days because they need 25% extra time? Or can we pay them proportionally less?

        If exams results are going to be used for future job applications, they should be done on an equal footing.

    • Basically

      You're a twat.

  • Vote for me!

    I also went to a good school…. http://oxfordfox.co.uk/1/bully-the-buller/

  • Mr Cultured

    Mr Bates is a very beautiful young man. A youthful face with boyish features. I'd very much like to engage in homosexual activity with him – a touch of harmless slap and tickle, and if we both enjoy it we can advance onto sodomy?

    (no homo)

  • lal

    a levels and gcses are good enough, stop being elitist!

  • Approval

    Yo man this is an excellent article, a joy to read. Tab should do more stuff of this quality.

  • Just a thought.

    I hear a lot of talk about schools not teaching well, not covering enough portions, etc. But to be honest, I found the easiest way to learn was to take the required texts and learn them on my own- I'm a science student, btw- I never found teachers very useful, so I am not too sure why the school background in theory should make a difference.

    I wonder if there are students that self-study at school level. Perhaps Cambridge should encourage prospective students attending not so good schools to learn the necessary things on their own. I don't know, perhaps prepare a self-study guidance pack- with recommend and useful texts and resources, etc-, a mini- home school instruction manual.

  • You Failed

    "the the"


    How dare you Joe!!! Since it was me who told you about some of this stuff I don't appreciate being told that my exams should be getting harder!!! i think its been a bit too long since you sat your exams, if fact they did what you said a while back, my chemistry exams are now so hard that the average mark is about 40% and I'm struggling with the 65% A* mark!!! I think next time think more carefully about what you say. Your comments will seem fair to uni people because you did do the exams where people get 100% but that is NOT TRUE ANYMORE, the cleverest people in my school get in the low nineties!
    Next time listen when I tell you stuff Joe!

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