River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Village SoapBox

October 2008

Ron looks back at the Olympic Games and then turns his professional gaze on A-Level results

The Games

Gone but not completely forgotten. What a spectacle it was and what feats of endeavour there must have been by the athletes to achieve the results that they did. The Chinese did extremely well and their contestants deserve the utmost praise. It was good to see Great Britain up with the leaders, many people seem to have taken great pride in the success of our athletes. But what does the British team's success mean? Does the fact that a few Brits beat the rest of the world in their particular events mean that, after China, the USA, and Russia, we, as a nation, are superior to the rest? No it doesn't. Should we be proud as a nation? Our athletes are deserving of the utmost praise and congratulations, even those who did not win a medal are deserving of praise for the supreme effort they displayed. They can be very proud. Can we be proud? To be proud is to be pleased or satisfied with oneself, one's possessions or one's achievements. Why should we be so proud as a nation? Can those watching the spectacle on television from their armchairs, with their glasses of wine or cans of lager, justifiably take pride in our athletes? Exactly what has been their contribution to the team's success?

What their success does mean, apart from their dedication and efforts to make the most of their talents, is that we have spent a lot of taxpayers' money and a lot of lottery money helping them to train and prepare for the events. A major factor in enabling them to be so successful appears to be the amount of money we have spent. How much did each medal cost? History has shown that when a nation devotes enough resources it can produce outstanding athletes. The Germans and the Russians have shown this in the past and the Chinese have shown it now, but what exactly is the point? In the Olympics of the 1990s Britain's athletes did not do well. Did that really have any impact on our standing in the world? The French did not do particularly well this time. Do we think any less of the French as a nation? Of course not.

What are the Olympics for? Last month Keith Mcleod gave his support to the concept of the Olympics although he did appear to have reservations over the cost and the hoo-haa. He claimed that the Olympics, along with art, music, literature and tourism helped to make war unlikely. I don't accept that, on the contrary the Olympics foster nationalism in a way that art, music etc do not. Anyone who believes that the Olympics help to prevent war must have forgotten the Berlin Olympics of 1936. The games are great entertainment, of course, but are they worth the cost? China is said to have spent £23,000,000,000. That is a lot of money. There will be some returns in terms of the expenditure by the athletes and the supporting armies of managers, trainers and journalists along with tourists, although China reported a drop in the number of tourists during the games, but that income from visitors cannot possibly match China's expenditure. For China there has been an immeasurable return in terms of kudos and their international standing, but that is because of China's unique position as a developing world super-power.

The budget for our games in 2012 is now put at £9.3billion, which is probably in excess of £1000 for every taxpaying family. Despite the protestations of our politicians that that is the absolute limit, that amount is sure to be exceeded. The Government are over a barrel, the games have to be a success and in the end it will cost whatever it costs. It is argued that there will be financial returns and that there will be a legacy in terms of the development of the East End of London and in terms of Britain's international standing. If the aim had been the development of the East End that amount of money could have been spent to much better effect. I doubt the games will have a significant effect on our national standing, unless we manage to make a real mess of things. The Greeks put on a very good show, they are said to have spent £9.4billion on their Olympic Games, that was an enormous amount of money for such a small country. They did receive much praise, the former president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch said they were the best games ever. Has that had any lasting impact on the standing of Greece in the world's nations? Similarly the games in Barcelona were a success but has Spain benefited? The Athenians were told the same as we have been told that there would be financial returns and a legacy of fine facilities. According to reports, however, the truth is that they have been left with expensive white elephants and they are still trying to pay off the debts they incurred. The short fall is said to have amounted to £40,000 for each family. According to one recent report, as many as 21 of the 22 Olympic venues created in Athens lie abandoned. The open-air swimming pool is empty and stained and the Fulsion complex is festooned with graffiti. In Sydney the Olympic Park became another white elephant and the games were a net cost in excess of £1billion to the Australians. Neither did the Australians find that their Olympics had encouraged greater participation in sport and athletics across the country.

Holding the games in London will cause a major disruption to the life and business of the town. The anticipated £9.3plus billions that we will spend is in addition to the £millions of taxpayer's and lottery money that will be directed towards supporting the competitors. It is all far too much money to spend on a fortnight's entertainment. There are so many problems facing us that are far more deserving of that money especially in these hard times. I never did understand the euphoria that accompanied the decision to hold the games in London. We must be mad. I am all for international competition between athletes but we can do without the nationalism and the jingoism of the Olympic games. If we had international competitions for the best public and social services, if we could win gold medals for the way in which we treat the sick and elderly, gold medals for our education, gold medals for our transport system and so on, then I could be proud of our nation. But I have little cause for pride in the fact that a few individuals have proved better at their games than those from other countries.


Every year there are those, myself among them, that express their opinion that the A-level (and GCSE) results imply that it is easier to get good grades than it used to be. Of course it is possible that today's teenagers are very much brighter than those of thirty years ago, but unlikely. Without doubt teachers have improved their technique for getting students through exams and the use of multiple assessments makes it easier to pass than with the old system where the assessment was based entirely on unseen examinations at the end of the course. However, it is questionable whether the current form of assessment gives as good an indication of the student's familiarity, genuine understanding and competence with the subject syllabus.

There are many, especially teachers and politicians, who insist that standards have not dropped. Nevertheless there is no doubt that universities are finding it much more difficult to select the more academically able on the basis of A-level results.

The following comparisons between today and thirty years ago were produced by the Institute of Independent College and University Tutors:

  1. Between 1965 and 1984 in individual subjects there were three times more failures than 'A' grades.

This year there were three times more 'A' grades than failures.

  1. If any two students who took an 'A' level subject between 1965 and 1984 were randomly selected there was a one in eleven chance that they would both fail that subject. This year the chances are greater than one in a thousand.

  2. This year the worst performing schools and colleges have a better pass rate than some of the very best in the 1980s.

In my view the evidence of 'dumbing down' is overwhelming. It is not fair to the youngsters, many of whom work very hard, and a change is necessary to restore the value of awards so that they are properly regarded by universities and employers, as well as the country at large. Currently, the way things are going, A-levels and GCSEs are in danger of becoming not much better than a certificate of attendance.

Another aspect of the A-level scene that has received comment in these pages on more than one occasion is the fall in the proportion of students taking maths and science at A-level. A particularly worrying feature is revealed in a report from The Royal Society. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland only 6% of 17 year olds took A-level Physics. The figure for Chemistry and Biology was 7% and for Maths 12%. The report also shows the disinclination of white British students to study these subjects. Even those white students with 'A' grades in mathematics at GCSE are disinclined to pursue the subject at A-level with only 45% going on to take maths, whereas 78% of ethnic Chinese students and over 60% of other ethnic Asian students with these grades go on to study A-level maths. It is probably true that, because the assessment by examiners is less subjective, it is harder to get good grades in A-level science and maths than in other subjects. This is the view that most students seem to have. The same view appears to be true of university courses with the result that white British students are shunning science and engineering. Are white British youngsters always looking for the easy route? Do they view university as a time to have a ball? They should be asking more about where the easy route will take them. This country has little in the way of natural resources; since the early days of the industrial revolution we have prospered and been able to defend ourselves by staying ahead of the game in technology. All of our prosperity and improved standard of living has been due to scientific developments and their exploitation by engineers. Already there is evidence that we are becoming more dependent upon technology from abroad. Unless we can reverse the trend our nation will be on the slippery slope towards second class status (and second class living standards). Chinese students understand the importance of maths and science to their future, why can't white British see this also? Parents and school teachers need to do more to encourage students towards these subjects and it is high time that politicians introduced financial incentives to students and teachers and directed more funds towards maths, science and engineering departments in schools and universities.


"I think for my part one half of the nation is mad - and the other half not so sound"

Tobias Smollet, British novelist 1762

Ron Watts

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