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Are grade rises on the level?

England this week recorded not only its hottest temperature since records began (100.6F) but its highest A-level pass rate (95.4 per cent). But at a baking press conference in central London on Wednesday, the exam boards'

spokesmen kept their suit jackets on and their excitement in check.

As with the heatwave, everyone had seen this new exam record coming. After all, this is the 21st year in succession that the pass rate has risen. But the exam board officials insisted the improvement was genuine. John Milner, convener of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, claimed the exams process had been tightened after last year's disaster. Every student in every subject could be confident their awards were well-deserved, he said.

We must hope this assurance does not return to haunt him. The exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have indeed made herculean efforts to shore up the A-level system (comedian Jonny Vegas and the Theosophical Society are among the strange bedfellows persuaded to endorse the exam publicly). But exam officers are not yet out of the frightening wood they entered last autumn. They must wait to see how many appeals they get. They will also have to answer claims that the pass-rate rise is being fuelled by a surge in the number of re-sits. The claim that students are avoiding "difficult" subjects such as physics, chemistry, French and German and choosing "softer" options such as psychology also has to be addressed.

This is not a new issue, of course. Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, of Durham University, drew attention to the differing levels of difficulty of A-level subjects back in the mid-1990s (physics was the hardest). But it is debatable whether the problem has been properly addressed.

If the boards cannot prove that it is as hard to gain a grade A in chemistry as it is in business studies, the efforts of students and teachers will again be undermined. It will also increase fears that the boards, despite their meticulous processes, cannot really maintain identical standards from year to year. They cannot afford to see such doubts grow. And neither can the country.

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