Are exams getting easier?

With the publication of this year’s GCSE results there’s been the usual clamour about “dumbing down” of educational standards. So are these examinations getting easier or not? I can’t answer that question because I’m far too old to have done GCSEs. The examinations I took at the equivalent stage of my school career were O-levels. But, being an inveterate hoarder of useless articles, I kept the exam papers that I took, so what I can do is put up and example the O-level papers I took (in 1979) and let you decide. I thought the Mathematics one might be of interest, so here it is or rather here they are, because there were two 2-hour written papers; there was no coursework component, so these counted 100% of the final grade.

If you’ve done GCSE mathematics recently, have a look and see what you think!

(You can click on the images to make them bigger if they’re difficult to read…)

I’d be interested in any comments you might have, especially if you’ve actually done GCSE Mathematics (recently or a long time ago). I suspect the most obvious difference is that in my day we did much more geometry…

I might put up the Physics papers if there’s enough interest!

27 Responses to “Are exams getting easier?”

  1. You might find Tim Gowers’ recent post (and experiment!) quite relevant.

    • I’m quite stunned. A maths teacher for 14 years (11 – 18 year olds). It is clear that exams became much easier between this paper and 2016. The year 2017 saw the introduction of the new 1-9 syllabus which does contain slightly more challenging questions and the trend is for that to continue. On the content side I notice that there is nothing on statistics/data handling. Some questions are trigonometry related but implicit rather than in today’s papers which tend to be explicit. There seems to be much more emphasis back then on geometry and geometric reasoning. Also it is clear today that students are doing far too much. The whole school syllabus is too broad and so is the maths syllabus itself. So I believe that the answer is right there. If you broaden a syllabus it will lack depth. There are only a certain number of maths lesson in the week. The amount of distractions both inside and outside of school today is also a serious problem. I don’t think students are any less bright today, but I do think modern culture has failed them.

  2. A packet of butter for 32p? Wow this must have been a while ago 😀

    I still have my GCSE papers (taken in ~2002), and these questions are considerably tougher, and are made up of much more geometry than ours were. Each of these questions would have been broken into probably 3 parts, to ‘walk’ us through. Also, binary numbers certainly wouldn’t have featured!

    IF you’d like to chech the current papers, the higher, non-calculator paper can be found here:

    The toughest thing on this 2009 paper seems to be calculating a formula for the cooking time for a turkey given the weight!

  3. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Are exams getting easier? […]

  4. It’s difficult to compare because O levels were split between GCE/CSE, whereas GCSE has to incorporate the rigorous examination structure of GCE along with the less academic coursework focus of the CSE.
    I taught myself for GCSE’s by studying from O level books that a friend of my parents gave me. Starnge way to do it, but it was all I could get. Anyway, I especially remember that for the GCSE mathematics syllabus there was at least a quarter of the O level books content that wasn’t covered. This was mostly the more advanced stuff towards the end of the chapter/book and quite a lot of the trigonometry/geometry. I was surprised at the time how much more difficult the GCE exam must have been. This was in ’93.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s a good point that the examinations were split in those days between GCE (which was O-level) and the easier CSE. The school I went to didn’t actually offer CSEs in any subject, so I never even got to see a CSE paper.

  5. Monica Grady Says:

    Such a relief to find that I can still do O-level maths (I’m even older than Peter, but not quite of the School Certificate age). Not quite so confident with the A-level papers on Gower’s website, but I think that might be a reflection of exam board differences? I could do my son’s A-level maths from 3 years ago, and don’t remember much about matrices.

  6. Those questions look familiar – cue O-level exam panic attack – where’s the nearest toilet ?
    Keen to see what maths I can re-learn from my daughters in the coming years… despite having a long under-utilised maths degree.

  7. MrsMathsTeacher Says:

    I teach secondary maths now. The biggest difference I am noticing is the breadth of sylabus we cover now. These old papers include no probability or statistics. Modern papers include bar charts, pie charts, cummulative frequency diagrams, scatter graphs, histograms and box plots, all of which the pupils have to be able to draw and interpret. They also need to be able to calculate averages from grouped data, criticise and redesign questionnaire questions and calculate stratified samples for a population.
    My point is that some topics have been dropped but far more have been added.
    This could explain why some of the topics that are in both are apparently easier on the GCSE papers. We don’t have time in a 2 year course to cover algebra etc at the same depth.
    And the paper is now 1hour 45mins for higher.

    • telescoper Says:

      I remember doing bar charts, histograms, scatter plots, etc in the third year of secondary school (modern Year 9), and O-level didn’t start until Year 10. I didn’t do probability theory until A-level; the topics you list seem to me to be neither probability nor statistics, just basic data description, but of course I may be wrong.

      Do modern GCSE students have to calculate probabilities for, e.g., cards drawn from a pack or dice throws?

      And as for the content, what you gain on plotting graphs you lose on geometrical proofs..

      • I’m currently in the Upper VI, taking Mathematics and Further.

        Based on this one example, I’d say it’s akin more to the Core 1 module (an AS-level Mathematics or Pure Mathematics module) than anything else.

        It’s certainly harder than GCSE (even the “Higher level”), but if you do less geometry, more general graphing and basic (really basic) calculus, then it’s essentially Core 1. No need to understand the binary system though.

        As for probability and statistics, the A level syllabus is spread across four modules for stats (S1-4), even GCSE is taken in a single, but separate paper. (At least when I did it a few years ago, we had an Algebra & Trig paper, a Statistics paper, and some other broader more general paper).

        GCSE stats certainly covers probability of dice and cards – but only very basic. i.e. the probability of two threes in a row is as hard as it would get (on either a die, or a card replaced into the deck, from what I recall they wouldn’t even expect you to calculate the 1/13 * 1/17 of a non-replaced double draw).

        A level on the other hand is a bit more complex, as it’s more separate from everything else, and optional.

        Covers various distributions, Bayes Theorem (in S1, basically as an extension to the Venn diagrams of GCSE), Spearman’s, Chi^2, PMCC, Central Limit, etc.

        You may be interested to view the Edexcel Mathematics specification (below), which details the assessed knowledge for all their offered A levels in Mathematics.

    • Keith Foot Says:

      I took O level Maths in 1979, also O level statistics in 1980.

  8. David Behrens Says:

    I seem to remember that 1979 was the last year that calculators were not allowed in exam room. Log books and slide rules were only available for the likes of me!

  9. David Behrens Says:

    I have just remembered, it was 1978 I sat the exam, a year before main O level year.

  10. Andy Wilson Says:

    I’d really like to see an exmaple of that old Physics paper you referred to.

    I did these in Scotland as O levels.

  11. Amanda Goddard Says:

    Did my exam in 1978 and was not allowed to take my new Sinclair calculator in…! Then again it did work in reverse Polish notation and I never did well thinking in reverse. Thanks for posting the paper, made me realise (as a current maths teacher) that the new papers have a wider range of difficulty, with some ‘easy’ questions that anyone should be able to do, and that students today would struggle to deal with the way the information was set out. May just give the papers to a couple of volunteer students and see how they get on. Watch this space! (any ideas in grade boundaries??).

  12. Robin Sheeran Says:

    I’m another 1979 O level victim. I went to the sort of school where sarcasm was the stock in trade of maths teachers – “You’ll never pass O level maths, boy!” was one particularly inspiring comment I remember.

    The books we used were mostly pages and pages of closely-typed calculations – yawn!

    And those early calculators were frighteningly expensive.

    I’m an arty type so I did General Science rather than ‘proper’ science. Managed to get a B in both, and haven’t used maths since for anything other than checking my change.

    I am, however, considering taking a GCSE in astronomy with my daughter. The maths looks a bit scary for someone of my background.

  13. […] Highers and there have been many changes in Mathematics education since I did my O and A-levels; here’s the O-level Mathematics paper I took in 1979, for example.  I wonder what my readers think? Comments through the box if you […]

  14. Thanks for sharing, I took this paper in 79 and have taught for the past 30 years. I think GCSE has more breadth but less depth, plus historically the questions have been signposted with part (a) then … The mathematical demands of the papers, but not necessarily in lessons are indeed easier at the top end. The new GCSE’s being examined next year, promise to have more demanding content and less structured questions.

  15. Hahahahaha. I took this paper, and miraculously (thank you Mrs Shipp) got a B grade. Looking at it 40 years later, I have no idea how. I now look at those questions and shiver in fear and wonder. Did I really know how to do that stuff?

  16. […] a comment appeared on an old post of mine about the O-level Examination I took in Mathematics when I was at School. With a shock that reminded me that it was FORTY years […]

  17. […] a comment appeared on anold post of mine about the O-level Examination I took in Mathematics when I was at School. With a shock that reminded me that it was FORTY years […]

  18. I sat this very paper in 1979 and got a pass at C grade. Just looking at it now and heaven knows how I achieved this. Wouldn’t have a clue now.

  19. I remember revising from the last O-level papers and text books for my GCSE Maths exa as i was one of the first to take GCSEs and they did include probability, stats, Venn diagrams and basic calculus. Calculus was dropped from GCSE Maths in the first year of GCSE.

  20. Alison Luxford Says:

    Were we the guinea pigs for the CSE Arithmetic? I am a maths teacher and have looked at the papers you kept. Boy they were boring papers! 🤔

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