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Celebrities try to calm A-level nerves

Watchdog sends out glossy guide to help restore confidence in exam system. Warwick Mansell reports

The Prime Minister will next week join a host of celebrities in backing a campaign to restore public confidence in A-levels.

Tony Blair, business leaders and stars ranging from comedian Graham Norton to the cast of Channel 4's Hollyoaks have put their names to the advertising drive. And a glossy guide, endorsed by, among others, DJ Zoe Ball, will be aimed at sixth-formers to reassure them that they need not worry about this year's exams.

The advertising campaign, launched by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, comes in response to last year's regrading furore, which the authority admits has dented confidence in A-levels. It is part of a wider pound;250,000 communications drive on A-levels this year.

The campaign takes the form of a public pledge of support for A-levels and those who take them, which is to appear in an advertisement in the Sun newspaper on Monday. It says that the signatories are proud of the achievements of those taking A-levels, and that the exam is still regarded as one of the most important qualifications any student can gain.

It reads: "Students in our schools and colleges are working as hard, if not harder, than ever before to pass these exams - and we wish them well in their endeavours. We are proud of them."

The signatories offer no comment, however, on whether A-levels are getting easier, the question asked every year at results time.

Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has signed. The Institute of Directors, which has often criticised rising pass rates for giving a false impression of rising standards, has also signed.

An Early Day Motion was tabled in Parliament this week calling on MPs to back the campaign.

The QCA has also spent pound;50,000 on a new guide aimed at explaining the A-level system to nervous sixth-formers and convincing them that it is in good working order after the turbulent events of last autumn.

It comes with endorsements from celebrities including DJ and television presenter Zoe Ball and rugby union star Jonny Wilkinson. Ms Ball reveals that she got grade Ds in her communication studies, English literature and English language exams.

Exam watchers will be particularly interested in the seven-paragraph section which gives the QCA's explanation of what happened last year.

The pamphlet emphasises the relatively small number of students whose lives were affected following Mike Tomlinson's investigation into the chaos. It says 1,900 grades were changed out of 1.6 million and only 16 students were forced to change their university course.

"Despite the unfortunate experiences of the students affected, it was clear that the A-level system was basically sound," it concludes.

"On the Level: The Official Guide to A-levels" is available free from WH Smith or from 020 8319 7606 or

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