If like me you are a Conservative or indeed anywhere to the rightward side of the political continuum you will frequently get irritated by the appropriation of the word “progressive” by those on the left. The implication is that some people want things to either not go forwards or to go backwards. This of course is a bit of nonsense; we all want things to go forwards just not all in the same way. Of course much of the linguistic semantics is about the usual ebb and flow of politics although I have to admit the amusement I get when I contemplate the concept that the world made no progress until people were generous enough to invent socialism and left wing politics.
Progress is a human characteristic, and being progressive is why humans are the dominant species. We learn and adapt far more impressively than any other species. From generation to generation we take the sum of human knowledge, add to it and then pass it on for others to take forward. Humans in our modern form have only been on the planet a few tens of thousands of years, in that time we have gone from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to the most complex social species this planet has ever hosted. We have gone from beings that thought everything in existence was made of a mixture of earth fire and water to being on the cusp of understanding how the universe sprang into being from nothing.
We are currently being entertained by the spectacle of the Olympic Games, that quadrennial festival of human progress. The Olympic motto is “Citius Altius Fortius” in English “Faster, Higher, Stronger” a motto that invokes progress as an aim of the Games. The main aim of course is to win a Gold medal and prove that you are the best of this generation in a particular physical discipline, but often the Games throw up new world records that suggest that an athlete is the best of any generation and lives up to the motto. Those of us who are not sporty enough to compete watch in awe as every four years competitors run faster, jump higher, lift greater weights and surpass all the other many challenges that the Olympics brings.
It is not just in the world of sport that progress is a human driving force, in science the quest for new discovery and greater understanding is the underpinning of the discipline. In the arts we seek always greater and more apt expressions of the human condition, whether in visual media or in any of the ways that as humans we can express ourselves. We are always seeking new ways of doing things, or improvements on the old ways. It is how humanity has gone from strength to strength for generations.
Progress is at the heart of what we are as humans which is why we come down hard on those who seek a short cut to it. Drugs cheats in sport are thrown out because they are attempting to bypass the hard work that leads to improved performance. In academia plagiarism is punished because another’s effort is used to seek personal credit. It is this sentiment that motivates the annual dusting down of grade inflation arguments. In a few short weeks we will no doubt see another record set of results in GCSE and A level exams and those who achieve them will be delighted. They will also be annoyed when questions arise about the ease of the system.
The question is of course valid, if exams are of differing quality then improving results in those exams are not necessarily a sign of progress in exam entrants. If the exams are being reduced in complexity then the people taking those exams are being seriously short changed. In sport we know that people are improving at the 100m sprint because the distance never changes; the only reasonable conclusion then is that a faster time shows a quicker person. The problem with GCSE and A Level results is that there is a suspicion that the exam is less rigorous now than in decades past, so when more people get the very top grade now than twenty years ago we cannot be sure that the uplift is because there are more clever people. It could be the exam is now at a level that more slip into an upper grade. For everyone concerned the doubt has been created and the validity and value of exams has been reduced.
I can understand why every year pupils get annoyed that this question arises, exams are stressful whatever the complexity of the questions. The stress alone will make them appear horrendous; to then be told that you were only successful because the exam was “easy” will feel like a slap in the face. The debate is more complex and broader than that and has to do with progress and our attitude towards shortcuts to it. We all want this generation of students to push beyond previous generations, but we want real progress not the illusion of it. We don’t want society or students taking exams to be cheated out of their just rewards.
I am encouraged by the progress that Michael Gove has made to reintroduce a concept of rigour into the education system. There is much more to do in this area though, both for the Education Secretary and his department. We need a system of testing that is the academic equivalent of the 100m sprint where the conditions don’t change and so the increase in performance is entirely and recognisably down to greater ability. Designing such a system will be difficult but the rewards for getting it right will be vast.