As I fell off the mountain, I learnt all about grade inflation
Nah, I thought, this can’t be right. I looked over the edge, and scrabbled like a beetle on the lip of a huge white bath. This can’t be the piste, I whispered to myself, as the wind whipped up thin dusty flurries of snow around my skis, and the sweat of fear chilled instantly on my brow.
I had just slipslid along a snake-like defile on the top of an 8,000ft peak, and now the route required me to launch myself down the slope.
Except that this wasn’t a slope, so much as a rash of hideous round protuberances on the wall of a precipice. These moguls were not your normal manageable moguls, like gigantic lumps of mashed potato. They were freakishly hollowed out on the uphill side, like waves frozen in the act of breaking, and as I stared at them I could just imagine how their jaws would catch the edge of my skis and flip me out and down into the void, and – aaargh.
No, it had to be a mistake. There had to be a sensible route down. For an ignoble second, I thought of undoing my bindings and grovelling back up the couloir. Until I remembered that I had just passed an English family higher up. They would spot me. My humiliation would be too obvious.
So I looked again down the slope, and saw that it was indeed a ski run, in the sense that there were other people on it. To be exact, there were two people – a ski instructor pleading with a poor woman who was apparently digging a bivouac for herself between the moguls.
Just as I was trying to work out which was worse – the shame of retreat or the terror of advance – I heard a hissing of skis behind me, and realised that my 12-year-old was trying to pass me and the time for hesitation was over.
As I slid over the edge, I cursed, and do you know what I cursed? I cursed grade inflation, and the illusion of accomplishment it can bring. After a couple of days in Courchevel, I had formulated an explanation for the vast annual migration of Brits to this French resort.
Ski runs are divided into Greens (peasy), Blues (pretty easy), Reds (Hmmm) and Blacks (Yikes) but at Courchevel the authorities have done a cunning trick and almost all the “Black runs” are frankly so pounded and manicured as to be nothing more than undulating motorways, about as precipitous as the M40 wending through the Chiltern Gap; and these soi-disant Blacks so perfectly flatter the talents of us hopeless-to-intermediate British skiers that the hills are alive with the sound of Harry looking for Harriet, and at the bottom of every run you will find Fiona or Smanfa on her mobile telling someone they are breaking up and can they all meet at the Panoramique, and as we bray and hoot our way round the bars and restaurants, you can see the smiles getting ever tauter on the faces of the French locals, their mood only momentarily improving when they hear the happy electronic chunter of the British credit cards being accepted into the maw of French credit card machines; and we are paying not just for the quality of the night life, my friends. We are paying for that unbeatable feeling of distinction of prestige that goes with skiing a Black run; and who can blame us?
Would you rather descend a Courchevel Black run with the merest shimmy of the hips and twiddle of the poles? Or would you rather slide down a real Black run, ones of those bowls of death, in a tangle of shaken bones and scraped skin?
We go to Courchevel for the ego boost, the reassurance, for the chance to brag to our friends how we really caned it down that Blackie, and, in so far as Courchevel appears to be deliberately dumbing down its toughest runs, the resort poses a central question of educational psychology.
It is one thing to boost people’s confidence and attract their custom. But at what cost to truth? Every morning you see the Panzer-like piston-bullies go up to munch the moguls, and in the same way British educational establishments are competing to masticate the syllabus and make the marks of excellence more easily attainable.
There are more A grades at A-level than ever before, and there seems no doubt that universities are subtly competing to give students more of the big prizes – the first and upper seconds – and, although no university would admit it, they know it pays to be generous.
Not only are universities partly ranked according to the number of Firsts they dish out, but, if you were a candidate hesitating between two rival establishments, you’d surely go to the one where you were more likely to be clapped on the back and told that you’d knocked off the academic equivalent of the Black run.
Wouldn’t that be better than some place where they say: Sorry chum, those Blacks are too steep for you; you’re a Red piste man at best?
And therein lies the essential dilemma of education, the eternal trade-off between boosterism and reality. We all want our children to feel praised and encouraged, and we all want them to feel so good and confident about themselves that they risk something new; and it was that very feeling that impelled me down.
“It’s only another Blackie,” I said to myself as I flailed into space. “I can do Blackies. I can bomb down,” I said, until reality inevitably intervened and in the moment of doom I verified that all my so-called Black piste qualifications were utterly useless, and first one ski hit my head and the other came off, and for what seemed an age I skidded down the icy scree to where my son was waiting patiently below, and I reflected on this profound truth as I waited to die: that you can do all sorts of tricks to the grades of the pistes and the grades of our students, but – in the academic world as in alpine sport – there are some places where you can do nothing to change the gradient of the mountain.