self-reliance, DIY and A-Levels

Building a packing table for the Oak Tree a couple of days ago, it struck me how much we’ve got used to buying in rather than do for ourselves compared to the last few decades. This raises the costs of living today in all sorts of ways. Our neighbours use an ironing service, there is a company that makes its living going round with a pressure washer cleaning out some people’s wheelie bins after they’ve been emptied. For those with children there are any number of child-related services, from childcare itself to after-school classes and activities.

All of these services add regular increments to many people’s cost of living. None of the increments in isolation looks particularly onerous, but the cumulative effect is quite remarkable. Take the regular outgoings my parents had in the 1970s

  • mortgage
  • car
  • electricity
  • gas
  • water
  • land-line phone
  • rates (equated to Council Tax nowadays)
  • TV licence

and now take a look at the extras a typical modern family would have on top of those costs

  • mobile phone subscription(s)
  • Sky TV/cable
  • broadband
  • childcare
  • second car

They could easily end up needing another £2000-5000 a year. They wouldn’t necessarily feel any better off for it. but it is still a hit to their pockets.

With the table I was making, the advantage of building farm equipment is it is cheaper than buying, natch, and the advantage for me as builder is that rustic construction adds charm. I am no cabinet-maker, my carpentry is imprecise, so outdoor construction is good for me. It has the satisfaction of working with real stuff with my hands, unlike how I earn a living at the moment. Plus it costs less than £50 in wood, whereas it would have cost me £350 from Amazon. Granted, that table looks nicer, but it’s the wrong height since you stand at a packing table

I learned working with tools and DIY as an adult, because though my Dad worked as a maintenance fitter he did not want to pass this on because he wanted me to aspire to better things. Which is roughly what happened, so he did well, although as a tyro and skint householder I had to learn plumbing and the like from books, colleagues and trial and error.

Once again, thinking about what he did for a living, companies used to repair equipment in far more detail than they do now. If something at work needed repairing, Dad would manufacture the replacement by making it from materials, often turning parts on a lathe and using tools, both metal and wood parts, and the company had him and a few other guys doing this.

Nowadays, this would be contracted out to the supplier and they would swap larger parts. I observed the same changes when I worked at the BBC – when I worked in studios we would fault-find down to the component level and replace individual resistors and transistors. This started to move towards replacing sub-assemblies when I left, and now I would imagine most items would be on a maintenance contract with the supplier, who would swap the whole item and simply throw out faulty modules.

In short, we’ve become even purer consumers; we don’t fix anything any more, and we are far less self-reliant as a result. Life costs more as a result, since we have to replace rather than repair. As for building stuff from scratch, we seem to have neither the time nor the money. When I look at, say, this  Popular Mechanics from 1971 I’m amazed at the level of skill assumed – I wouldn’t know what some of the hand tools are for, never mind use them, and yet many articles assume this level of craft skill.

Why it’s not the employers getting shafted by A-Level grade inflation, it’s the kids!

Every crabby old git has a chance to take a cheap shot at A Level results when they come out round about this time of year, so I might as well have my turn here. This graph (okay it is from the Daily Fail but the issue of grade inflation has enough other publicity) says it all.

There was an interesting thread on this board, where it shows that the reasons for the change has been lost in the mists of time for people taking A levels now. I am old enough to remember how this worked before the kink in the graph, and the explanation is simple.

When I took my A levels in the late 1970s, they were graded in terms of relative levels. That is, about 8% of the candidates got an A grade. This system, called a norm reference, is self-calibrating. It is inevitable that some years the papers will be harder than in other years, but this means that one year the A pass mark would be 80%, if it were harder the next year the pass mark would be 75%for example.

This delivers results that are useful for employers and universities. In practice, employers and unis have only so many places. They know roughly how many people they want to take on, and if they have academic requirements, they can then say they want to take the top 8% (or 80% – their needs will vary) and adjust pay rates accordingly if they are employers. Be less selective and you can pay less, but you may then accept you get people who are less smart. Smartness is not the only requirement at work and is a hindrance for some jobs, but at least you can sift the candidates and place them relative to their peers.

The downside of this method is that some candidates fail, or at least get grades that are worthless in the marketplace. At some point it was deemed that this was a Bad Thing, because some people’s self-esteem is harmed by knowing they aren’t as bright as other people. For some reason this was so upsetting that they had to cover it up.

I won’t go all Atlas Shrugged on you, but it’s a fact that ability is not spread evenly at all. Some people are stupid. There. I’ve managed to say it. Some people aren’t geniuses, much as it may come as a surprise to their parents. For instance, I wasn’t bright enough to get into Cambridge. Usain Bolt has the edge on me in the 100m too, I’m sad to say. The problem here, is that fixing the exams to cover up this nasty little fact of life may have made the dim feel better but it doesn’t allow the clever to shine.

Two things were done, one was to pretend that the exams tested an absolute standard, immediately destroying the feedback mechanism that calibrated the difficulty of the exams to the pass mark. A norm referenced system that allocates marks as a percentage of candidates is not easy to fiddle, and I find it hard to believe that the one year’s 300,000 A level entrants are going to be that much brighter or dimmer than the next year’s. A criterion referenced system is easy as pie to fiddle, because who judges the difficulty, and how do you measure difficulty  other than by how many people pass? It’s just all too open to abuse, and the incentive to up the pass rate is always there.

Because the norm reference was lost, the Uniform Mark Scheme was apparently an attempt to nut variations between different paper setting boards.

There were other changes that made it possible to increase grades. When I took A levels you only resat an exam if you had failed, and you had to take the whole exam again. Now with the modular system you can resit individual components, keeping the best mark for each component, assembling your A level one piece at a time.  If I were a prospective employer I would want to know resit details. Something gives me the feeling that someone who passes first time is perhaps better than someone who needs to take five bites at the cherry 🙂

The tragedy here is borne by the young people that the current system fails – the academically gifted who can’t shine in this system because the dim bulbs are being lit up from behind. It is not the exam takers who have failed, it is the designers of a system that has lost its ability to discriminate.

A second perversity of the British university system is the ramping up of admissions targets, from 7% when I entered university about 30 years ago to 50% now. There is an implicit lowering of of the bar in that. It is possible that better nutrition, health-care and education has improved the level of intelligence somewhat over the years, but probably not by that much 😉

Compare the mayhem of UK clearing with this description of the German numerus clausus which seems to manage the numbers and indeed the studied subjects. Such a system, however, is only possible because the Abitur (A-level equivalent) still discriminates by ability. Obviously this means those that don’t do well in the Abitur don’t get to realise their dreams, taking a corresponding hit to their self-esteem. In Germany it seems this is still considered acceptable.

Eternally whingeing employers are also to blame – when I started work employers accepted that graduates coud not immediately be plugged into a job but had to be trained – for several weeks in the BBC’s case, before they could be let loose on the expensive and potentially dangerous equipment and expensive studio time. There seems to be a lot less preparedness among employers to train young people, and then some ghastly whingeing when it all goes pear shaped. Employers are entitled to expect that public schooling provides a decent level of literacy and numeracy. The rest is up to them, if they want degree courses better suited to their needs then sponsor them!

For all that I wish the A-level students all the best and good luck in your chosen careers. I can’t tell which ones of you to really congratulate, but that’s hardly your fault, and hopefully we will all find a way to sort it out in the long run.