It’s A-level results day. You will know this already, because the Telegraph will have some pretty teenagers on its front page, except not in hats or prefixed “Lady”. Or maybe you have an 18-year-old of your own, in which case you will have woken, ashen, from a night plagued by terrors, a clan of hyenas – internationally recognised metaphor for the forces of marketisation – attacking your baby, while you are powerless to help because you’re trying on shoes.
I was in on the ground of grade inflation, taking English the first year of GCSEs, which were apparently much easier than O-levels, the first skid on the slippery slope of declining standards. (I got a C – I draw no conclusions from this bitter experience.) This account of education has a satisfying simplicity: in 1987, marking changed, from grade-allocation quotas – 10% should get an A, 15% a B, and so on – to criteria referencing; like a driving test, each grade required a specific level of performance. Results went up every year for the 20-odd years thereafter. Degree results followed: in the decade between 2004 and 2014, the number of students getting a first went from 11 to 19%. Since human intelligence didn’t seem to have appreciated, and employers were always moaning that new entrants to the workplace couldn’t use photocopiers, it was obvious what had happened. Grades had been debased. Schools, in cahoots with examiners, were somehow gaming the system. Nobody was quite clear on the detail. Was it “teaching to the test”? Was there a slippage in marking rigour? Whatevs. If a quarter of students now got top grades, their achievements could not possibly be equal to those of the previous generation, in which only a tenth did.
It was a useful frame politically: by 2010 it fed into the overall austerity bilge that everything had simply got worse “because liberals”; it portrayed teachers as self-interested, working against the long-term interests of students, thus undermining their legitimacy when they said things like: “We can’t teach this new syllabus because we can’t afford the new textbooks”; and it had a fix – make exams harder – which looked easy, so long as you didn’t give any thought to what that might entail. Underlying it was this (unintoxicating) cocktail of observable counterpoints: kids did seem to be working harder. They seemed to be under considerably more pressure and to take everything a lot more seriously. They seemed to reach university with a significant anxiety burden. It was all so complicated; who could say what caused what? They might simply be anxious about debt, or body image. There was no satisfying clunk of a reality totally at odds with an accepted truth; instead, a lot of fine distinctions and blurred causalities.
But what a cruel thing we have done to 18-year-olds, caught in this vice of politics’s making, under unendurable pressure to be the best at everything, then called flakes and lightweights when they get three As because so has everyone else. Today should be turned into one of Labour’s new bank holidays and rechristened Intergenerational Solidarity Day. We could all skip work to call LBC and tell them how we felt in 1991, how we failed and still turned out OK, how we had to smoke 20 fags before we even opened the envelope and that the legacy in lifelong nicotine intake has probably been more significant than anything we know about Charles I. Would an 18-year-old take any solace from that? Probably not. They’d probably mutter: “It wasn’t the same for you, old-timer, you were allowed to get a C without being permanently ejected from the society of the right-thinking.” But it would remind us all to stop being such jerks, and that would help.
There’s a Madonna for all feminists
Feminism is divided into waves, first to fourth. It would be more useful to divide feminists by attitude, since doing it chronologically carries the unfortunate connotation that everyone the same age thinks the same thing. Here, Madonna – encompassing every strand of feminism with her sheer refusal to lock into one position – can be our guide.
First wavers took their fight to the world; arguably, they were just prioritising. There would have been very little point establishing whether men were more or less useful than a bicycle was to a fish before you had a chance to vote on it. You’d think their Madonna era would be late stage – Rebel Heart, the point at which love and revolution meet – but in fact it’s True Blue: they were, above all, practical and literal. You couldn’t smash things up without smashing things up. And you don’t make a pop sensation without making pop.
Second wavers were “screw you, I don’t have to be the woman you want a woman to be”, which is not – as you might think – the pointy-bra era (that was ludic and sexual, see “fourth wave”, below) but the Ray of Light phase (“You think it’s time I shuffled off? Not gonna”). The third wave was slightly indolent, can’t-we-all-agree? feminism, and this is American Life Madonna, one minute dressed as Che Guevara, the next snogging Britney; a sloping, devilish, “aren’t women and men the same, really? Aren’t communists just capitalists in better hats?” The fourth wave – pro-sex, pro-sex-worker, pro-fluidity, pro-inclusiveness – that’s Like a Prayer/Erotica Madonna.
You will be wondering why this exercise is useful; it is possible, indeed necessary, to respect and admire all the Madonnas, without betraying any of the other Madonnas. The same spirit of love and celebration would make the divisions of feminism more enjoyable to air and easier to resolve.
All hail the queen of the country fair
I arrived at my stepmother-in-law’s house to find it stacked with certificates, highly decorative, some embossed, a pile on every surface. It looked like she had robbed a 19th-century bank, but in fact she’d just cleaned up at the country fair; literally won everything. Two separate firsts for dahlias; different categories for beetroots, parsnips and overall roots (she won them all); an opaque class called “my favourite cake” (did it mean you liked it more than everyone else liked theirs? Or that it was everyone’s favourite? Never mind, she won). She scored second for a courgette that was “completely out of control, really more of a marrow”. I’m not making a point about grade devaluation in country fairs. I’m just saying well done, really.