Exam Grade Inflation

great exam resultsCalling all conservatives! Attention please, all you reactionaries and nostalgia-merchants, and anyone who thinks the past knocks spots off the present. This is the season of exam results, when the papers are full of happy backlit pictures of girls in summer dresses receiving the news of their Stakhanovite performances at A-level and GCSE.

This is the week when dyspeptic Right-wing columnists and politicians traditionally denounce these scenes as a sham, when lovely hard-working teenagers run crying from the room because some miserable old git has told them that an A-grade these days isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.

The question before us is whether or not humans are capable of stunning improvements in individual and collective performance.

When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, he was thought to be a prodigy. Now, more than a thousand men have pulled off the same feat.

If our physical faculties are capable of such rapid improvement, surely the same applies to our brains. Faster, higher, stronger. Why not cleverer?

Boris further says:  ” This year, about 45 per cent of candidates for maths A-level got an A grade, compared to about 7 or 8 per cent in the Sixties.  … Are our examiners really trying to tell me that our kids are between four and five times more expert at maths, when the syllabuses have been made so much simpler?  The reality is that we have rampant grade inflation, a symptom of all mature societies ”

Drawing from his beloved Classics background he expands:  “When the Roman empire was entering its declining years, you not only found that the supreme titles of Augustus and Caesar started to be shared around, but everybody wanted higher and higher gradations of rank. There was a time when it was good enough to be known as a senator. In the fourth century, they decided that senators deserved the further honorific clarissimus – most renowned senator.  The trouble was that soon everybody in the senate was called clarissimus. Thousands of people were said to be most renowned. So some people insisted on being more most renowned than others.  Now they couldn’t take away the honorific clarissimus from those who felt they had earned it, any more than you could ask the exam boards to reduce the number of As or to take away child benefit from the middle classes. So they divided the clarissimus grade into two categories. There were the spectabiles, who were not only most renowned but also wondrous to behold; and then there were the illustres, who were extra special, prima, very good, tip top, the bee’s knees, cat’s whiskers, and so forth.  That is what has happened to exam grades in this country, where we have had to divide second-class degrees into two, because so many seconds were being awarded, and where we have had to counter the profusion of the A grade at GCSE by introducing the A star.”

He concludes by arguing that with an increasing population, better nutrition and with our astonishing computerised ability to disseminate instant information we are producing a bigger crop of ever more outstanding intellects, just as we are producing ever more extraordinary athletes, claiming that it must ultimately be likely that Britain contains more of the cerebral equivalents of Usain Bolt  – who destroyed the world records for the 100 and 200 metres – than ever before. But it is a slow business and we are all greedy for success hence our national addiction to spiralling grade inflation, which is everywhere and always a political phenomenon.


The article appears in full in The Daily Telegraph today here

32 thoughts on “Exam Grade Inflation”

  1. Boris has missed a detail, I think. Not only are far higher grades awarded as a proportion of those taking it, but many more take it.

    I think (OTOMH) when I took mine (1981) about the top 10% of the school population did A-Levels. I think it’s now 30-40%.

  2. D+. A rehash of your previous pontifications, Johnson.
    Must do better.
    We will see if the generation that has done so spectacularly well over the last ten years is truly clever if they manage to find a way of overcoming the current political situation of having two virtually identically right wing stagnant parties in contention for government. If, in 2029, there is a “People’s Party” in government and the Torygraph manages to name a popular singer without having to explain who he is and what songs he composed, I will give you a friendly gummy smile, and share my softened biscuits with you in the “Old Tossers” nursing home in Bognor.

  3. There is a certain pure logic to Boris’s reasoning. Usain Bolt is running much faster, the average cup side of women’s bras is much larger, so logically our brains must be increasing as well.

  4. I agree that there is spiralling grade inflation and there may soon be A and A* grades at A-Level to differentiate between the best. I got Bs for my A levels and that was considered impressive enough to qualify for a place in a top Russell Group university – however, I doubt that anyone with those grades would easily achieve the same today.

  5. Again, this Labour government has tried a way to hide their failure in education by creating more confusing new grades which people no longer know what they stand for.

    One was overcharged in Tesco and complained at their Customer Service counter. The young male member of staff could not work out the difference between the prices until he found the calculator to do the sums before he would refund one.

    Of course, he is a product of Labour’s shoddy education who is frightfully obsessed with and focuses mainly on political correctness at schools. Baa Baa black sheep and those nonsensical things. Meaning he is not a bright bulb. But he was cunning. Ah, yes.

    Because shoppers know that at Tesco, if you are overcharged, they will give you a full refund PLUS the item free of charge. Meaning you laugh all the way home. Meaning the dim but bright twat pocketed the rest of the cash. (And nowadays, cunning teenagers are also the products of Labour’s shoddy laws.)

    But, as he was a good looking young chap; so fit and charming, with a dimple like M. Douglas’s and a beauty spot like C. Crawford’s, one decided to keep one’s gob shut rather than protesting loudly that might embarass him unnecessarily. Although, one was not amused.

  6. One.

    Re. your post, I don’t understand the point you are making.Tescos have a policy when they have overcharged someone, of refunding you the money, and also giving you the item.

    You say the assistant who helped you had to use a calculator to work out your refund. Why did you deduce from this that he was cunning and “intended to pocket the rest of the cash?”

    How could he do this if he gave you your full refund, plus the item? Being a shop assistant is a very stressful job and genuine mistakes do happen. When people are short changed, it often is a genuine mistake.

    But it is not clear how any money was misappropriated since you received your full refund and also the item.

  7. One

    Thanks for your comments Andriana

    You have no idea how difficult it is to be a shop assistant – just think: to have to say hello 000s of times a day to total strangers and cope with mind-numbingly dull enquiries about a few pounds and pennies.

    One – just give the assistant a smile next time

  8. I don’t know about A-levels but GCSE’s have been dumbed down to hell over the last few decades.

    I was on a training course a few months ago and the middle-aged guy giving the lecture started working out standard deviation long-hand.

    He’d never done A-level maths, he learned how to do it at O-level. When I did my maths GCSE (1994-96) we didn’t even do standard deviation on a calculator.

  9. Mel, exactly! I myself had experience of that type of work at one time and all the girls I worked with were hard working and honourable, and would never have dreamt of taking anything.

    It is hard for customers to imagine, but mistakes can happen genuinely and if customers are appreciative, it makes a world of difference to the morale of the store. Maybe the assistant who served “One” was not very good at maths. OK that’s not ideal, but it doesn’t mean he was dishonest.

  10. 3 Questions:

    1. How much has Libya paid into Peter Mandelson’s secret personal bank accounts?

    2. Why did Labour time to release the Lockerbie bomber while MPs are on their summer holidays?

    3. What is the point of our troops fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and the likes if ‘our’ Labour Government has just released a dangerous terrorist for a potential multibillion-pound (!) trade deal?

    Where is the moral in all this? Now the Talibans in Afghanistan can laugh in our soldiers’ faces. The serving soldiers, the dead ones and their families must be feeling humiliated. Like the rest of the country.

    A silent Gordon Brown was pulled into the centre of the storm over the release of the Lockerbie bomber last night as it emerged Gaddafi defied his personal plea for a low key home-coming.

    The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown personally ( personally! ) wrote to the Libyan dictator ( dictator! ) asking him to ‘ act with sensitivity after Mr. ( Mr. ! ) Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was freed from the Scottish jail. ‘

    As all hell broke loose, Brown ( who is on holiday in Scotland right now ) and British Foreign Minister David Miliband have refused to condemn or back the mass murderer’s release on Thursday – their spokesmen insisted ‘ it was purely a matter for the Scottish Saltire (!).’ Peter Mandel, British Deputy Prime Minister chose to go to hispital right now to escape the furry and not to have to talk to the press! How can we trust this dodgy government to run this country when they are behaving like mafias? Doing untold damages to this country and answering to no one.

    Scottish business leaders now fear for the future of Scotland’s vital export industry amid threats from America of a boycott of whisky and other goods like: shortbreads, faggots, ready-cooked porridge in tins, dried heather flowers and the famous sarongs. Russ Brown, Labour MP for Dumfries, cried: ‘ I have never been ashamed to be a Scott before, to be honest with you. I mean, even if people say my dangling must feel the cold under my sarong, I don’t feel humiliated about that at all, to be honest with you. But to see my country’s flag waved by the Talibans at the Tripoli Airport to welcome the mass murderer home, to celebrate mass murder is outrage, to be honest with you. ‘

    That will teach you a lesson for betraying our British soldiers and the free world. No amount of money will be enough but your name will be tarnished forever. A potential multi-billion-pound trade deal? Just think how many billions this Labour government has to pay into Brussels’s EU membership pot each year to pay for dodgy subsidides and for the MEPs to steal from?


  11. I was buying a tube of Olay anti-aging creme. Twiggy is fronting this campaign right now. She looks real young in the photo. It is priced at £5.58 on the shelf. I was charged a full £6. It ain’t right. He should know the company’s refund policies. Give me back £5.99 and let me have that item free of charge. And not gave me 2p back and put £5.88 into his pocket. God help us all.

  12. You must be very very old. You got it all wrong there. You meant he should have given you back £5.58 and that tube of cream free of charge. Instead of giving you only 42p back and kept £5.58 for himself? No wonder you need anti aging cream, you old foggy!

  13. He could have made a genuine mistake. You are right, he should have known the company’s policy, but maybe he was new and found it all confusing.

  14. Oh, my. Oh, my. Never have I caused such an uproar in this room. Much louder than the one in this room at the release of the Lockerbie mass murderer for a potential multi-billion-pound trade deal. No wonder the British government, I mean the Scottish government, chose to release him at the time when most British politicians are on their summer holidays. Boris is not writing as he’s on holiday. He should thank me for entertaining his readers while he is off.

    Re: That fit chap behind the counter.

    Honestly, I have been overcharged by Tesco a few times. Sometime you get a full refund plus the item free of charge. Sometime later, it happened again but they only give you back the difference but you are too embarrassed to ask why. Then sometime after that, it happens again but this time you get a full refund plus the item free of charge. This has happened to some people I know, too. If this happens to you, ask for a full refund plus the item free of charge to take home.

    I mean, their refund policy is so simple. Overcharged, get all money back plus the damn thing to take home. Not difficult to remember, is it?

    I mean, OK, sometimes the difference is not much and if they only give you back the difference then … who cares, right? But will they let you have a copy of The Sun if you are a penny short. Even if you are pleading with them that you need that penny to spend, right? The easy, laid back retailer is the petrol stations who will always allow you to be a few pennies short and let you drive off – with a smile!

    That’s why I never protest at them raising a few pennies on their fuels. The fit chap is an imagined person, so there’s no defamation.

  15. “One” everyone has been overcharged from time to time, but it is not hard to check your bill.

    You should always check your bill, because sometimes the scanners are so sensitive, they beep items up twice, through no fault of the assistant.

    If you find an error has been made, just go to the information desk, and point it out, while reminding the assistant pleasantly that it is the policy of the store to give you the item free, and refund its cost.

    If assistants are not aware of this, (a) they could be new and overwhelmed by everything they have to learn.
    (b) they might not have received adequate training.
    (c) they might have worked a lot of overtime and make a mistake through exhaustion.

    Believing that someone is “cunning” and out to rob you and the store is a very uncharitable reaction. All you have to do anyway, is clearly and politely remind them of the store policy to get your refund.

  16. “Teenage children seem to have a deep and instinctive understanding of technology that leaves many of us enthralled and depressed.”

    This is so true, and not just teenage children, but much younger than that.

    My friend’s four year old son races away in his knowledge of the computer, and makes all the correct moves without seeming to think about it. He seems to have absorbed the process like osmosis, whereas we adults struggle, trying to rationalise the process and work out that way what is what.

    But the toddler doesn’t think about the “why”, somehow he knows and has absorbed the process by instinct.

  17. StevenL

    Of course you are a standard deviation expert – you being Mr Brains of Britain supremo – what do you expect?!

  18. Andriana
    true – mistakes can happen and we are all human – btw you must have been an exemplary member of staff: One needs to find someone like you at the till!

  19. One – you raise three important points I am mulling over.

    On the Olay creme purchase – I had never heard of a refund + item free of charge. However, surely if there is an under/overcharge the onus is on you to point out any error otherwise you could be accused of being just as dishonest as that chap behind the counter?

  20. Mel, that is the policy of Sainsburys, and probably Tesco. In Sainsburys, if you can prove you were overcharged on your receipt, the store gives you the item and refunds not only the overcharge but the entire cost of the item.

    I am glad people are speaking up for sales assistants of large stores, whose job is extremely stressful on a daily basis. These staff are rarely thanked and appreciated.

    Hours are dreadful now. Over the Christmas period, the staff now only have the Christmas Day to spend with their families, and have to come in to work on Boxing Day. On christmas Eve they are all manning the tills for the late night rush, and to me these girls at that moment, are the most important people in the world, because they make sure so many customers have a happy Christmas. Late nights until 10 pm. or 11 pm. are the norm.

    Some stores, in spite of these restrictions, supply superb customer service. John Lewis for example, are first class, also Waitrose, and some stores of Marks and Spencer. My local Sainsburys are great, really kind and helpful.

    I was chatting to the girl on the till in Waitrose yesterday and she was saying what a difference it makes when customers are appreciative.

    “One” We all do not wish to pick on you, but please believe me when I say genuine mistakes happen far more frequently than you would think unless you know retail.

  21. Great point you made Boris. And you are right about it. I only use one example to support your point.

    Margot Fonteyn was considered as one of the greatest principle dancer of The Royal Ballet. But in today’s standard, she’s less than half as great as Allina Cojocaru in terms of technique, elegant, and gracefulness. In fact, any average ballet dancer is better than her.

    p.s. 1) anyone you old old Margot’s fan wanna yell at me, just let you know I don’t hear you. I only see and compare. Let the performers speak for themselves.

    p.s 2) if you happen to have a chance, watch some old film about ballet history of, say 80 years ago, you may agree with me what I think of it. That is ballet 80 years ago looks like comic dance to me, clumsy and awkward.

    p.s. 3) Not saying that all things now are better than the past. Some good quality good thing of humanity do get lose as time pass. However, human being do excel tremendously via new generations as time goes forward.

  22. ricecake, how then would you rate the performances of geniuses like Rudolf Nureyev and Nijinski? Would they compare badly with the dancers of today, would you say? Maybe it is just that styles change, and the dancing style of Fonteyn seems old fashioned to us. When she formed the partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, she seemed to take on a new lease of life, and her style was far more contemporary. If the teaching of today had been made available to Fonteyn, she might have equalled modern dancers.

    Intellectually, think of Shakespeare. Could it be said that modern writers had surpassed his work?

  23. Daughter got an A for her GCSE Drama she took early so am hopping happy that she has benefited from the grade inflation!

  24. angela, Yes, Shakespeare is immortal and I never said everything of the past is not as great now. My point is human beings are doing better in many things as time advancing. But sure Rudolf Nureyev was not as great in dance technique as the following dancers: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carlos Acosta, Daniel Simkin, Roberto Bolle. Nureyev was perhaps better at his dramatic acting. But for the dancers, to me dancing is the first consideration.


    “Intellectually, think of Shakespeare. Could it be said that modern writers had surpassed his work?”

    Depend on what kind of modern writers you are talking about. For example, modern writers are better in writing codes and science etc. The world is not solely dominated by Shakespeare’s wit.

  25. Compare papers in subjects where they can be compared, such as maths, and you will see that the exams of 30 years ago were much harder than today’s.

  26. Sadly grade inflation is real and clearly children are not getting brighter. The development of non-core, non-academic subjects at school, does more still to exagerate this effect along with course work contribution etc.

    Sadly I passed a GCSE maths paper last year(with 100%!!) one evening on an overheated Met line tube (please note Boris, is heating necessary on 19 degree September day? )between Liverpool St and Baker St stations.

    I’ve been looking to hire an intern and interviwed 12, all with decent degrees from decent Universities (several with Masters). However the highest grade from my test was 55% obviously because neither rope learning or pure memory helped. Sadly as intellect was required I decided to hire no one.

  27. When I achieved my AABA grades forty years ago they were considered good enough that Balliol (Boris’s old college at Oxford) offered me an unconditional place, post A-level, without having to sit their entrance exam. A Cambridge college did the same. I chose Balliol. These results were obtained at a bog-standard state Grammar School, then recently having just gone comprehensive. My background was low-income working class as was that of most of my fellow school pupils and that of my friend with similar grades who was offered a place at Corpus. Is there grade inflation now? Yes. is there less opportunity for poor pupils now than then? Yes. Is there need for “A-star” grades at A-level? No, because they always existed until very recently and were called “Special Papers”, taken alongside “A” levels: same syllabus but harder questions. I took them but for some reason state schools seemed to stop offering them in recent years.

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