Cheeky Miliband pits the Daily Mail against Middle England

Conor Ryan

Hostilities resumed in the annual August A-level standards war this week.

"Glut of A grades fuels fears over A-levels" claimed the Sunday Times.

Not to be outdone, the Mail on Sunday discovered a "new exam loophole".

Pupils could take A-level repeats "like driving tests" in a "retakes revolution" which the paper said "makes a mockery of A-levels".

David Miliband, school standards minister, hit back on Tuesday, when he attacked the "biggest myth in education" - that "more means worse". On Radio 4's Today programme, he delivered a cheeky sideswipe at those (newspapers and experts) who knocked the achievements of "Middle England" youngsters responsible for a threefold increase in A-level passes during the past 30 years.

He then entered the lion's den penning a piece for Wednesday's Daily Telegraph, which the paper spun into an unlikely story: "A-levels have become easier, schools minister admits". In fact, he said, A-levels were about more than traditional IQ tests, but a leader denounced this, and the Middle England line, as "Milibabble".

Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, had already chosen Saturday's Telegraph to launch a pre-emptive strike by proposing to distinguish between brighter students by looking at individual A-level module scores. But that did not stop the leader writer fulminating about a "debased gold standard" and dubbing Mr Boston's ideas a "counsel of despair".

This year's war was more complicated than usual, with a diploma on the horizon - "GCSEs and A-levels will be axed" promised the News of the World.

Opposition came from an unexpected quarter. Jonathan Ford, managing director of the National Assessment Agency, the new testing quango, said scrapping A-levels "would wreck education", according to the Observer.

Taking a break from sorting out the fiasco of this year's key stage 3 English results, Mr Ford said the whole project would also be too costly.

And then a boffin muddied the waters. Professor Roger Murphy from Nottingham university has concluded that the "A-level grading system is a lottery", said the Independent.

In a report for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Professor Murphy said that every grade was a "compromise" anyway. There's surely no room for that in this August ritual.

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Conor Ryan

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