Comment: Philosophy, Politics or English Degrees Do Not Entitle You to the Job of Philosopher-King

By Ryan, Alan | The Independent (London, England), November 9, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Comment: Philosophy, Politics or English Degrees Do Not Entitle You to the Job of Philosopher-King


Ryan, Alan, The Independent (London, England)


I AM terribly upset about the sudden departure of Chris Woodhead. I had been meaning to offer him my services as a ghost writer, and now it's too late. If only he had learned to express himself properly, he might have had a successful career in education.

Mr Woodhead is like some clever students I have known; they write well, and are very energetic, but oddly off-target. They write enthusiastically about the Battle of Waterloo, but believe they are explaining Napoleon's victory. So although it's too late to save his career, here is what Chris meant to say about A-level standards and Noddy degrees.

Since it is patently untrue that if an examination means anything, some people have to fail it, it is clear that what Chris was trying to say is: if an examination means anything, there will be a significant gap between the top performers and the worst performers. This is because most examinations exist to distinguish better from worse. With a smaller supply of something than applicants for it - university places, training seats in racing cars, oboists' desks in a crack symphony orchestra - we need to pick out those who are to get it.

A good examination discriminates in the way we need. To inflict on children an examination that doesn't separate out better and worse performers is gratuitous cruelty. If you have one conservatory place, and six excellent pianists, it may be hard to discriminate between them; but you want a test that does it. If you can't devise one, the decent thing is to toss a coin.

Of course, some examinations discover whether people have met a minimal requirement; these need discriminate only between those who have and those who haven't, and need be no good at discriminating between those who are just above the line and those who are way above it. It wouldn't matter if nobody failed the driving test, as long as the standard of competence is high enough and the test is conducted properly. And a failure rate of 80 per cent would be fine too, if we thought that the standard was right.

But using A-level both as a school-leaving examination to test minimum competence, and as a filter for the very cleverest students aspiring to go to Imperial College and the LSE, may in fact defeat our ability to devise syllabuses and set examinations on them. We might do better to break it into two or three parts, and allow students to take the parts they needed for whatever they had in mind to do next.

On Noddy degrees, poor Chris faced the problems created by our political masters. First, they can't admit that different universities have different purposes, and second, they can't imagine that anything is worth doing for its own sake.

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