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Ease up on easy slur

What are we to make of the slight improvement in this year's A-level results? David Blunkett was categorical: "I am confident that these results reflect real achievement". But some journalists have chosen to disagree.

Last weekend's Sunday Telegraph was emblazoned with the headline:

"Official: A-levels and GCSEs are getting easier". The story reported that a government adviser who investigated exam standards "has concluded that A-levels and GCSEs are becoming easier to pass". Other newspapers such as the Express contended that the study proved that Mr Blunkett and his ilk are living in "dreamland".

Parents must be wondering whether teenagers who achieved A grades really deserved it - or agonising over how their child could fail when exams are so much easier. That's a pity, because the Sunday Telegraph article which triggered the media chatter appears to have misrepresented the study - carried out by Alastair Pollitt of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

"The claim that A-levels and GCSEs are getting easier is not 'official', and according to the most comprehensive research not true," Dr Pollitt says in an as-yet-unpublished letter to the paper. "Your mention of GCSEs ... is utterly misleading. The research did not cover GCSEs in any way. In fact it looked at just one A-level maths syllabus. What the research suggested is that in 1986 there was a one-off shift in the standards for one syllabus in one subject: maths."

It is on such slight molehills that critics of the exams system build mountains of criticism. The Government's appointment of expert panels to monitor A-level standards will reduce the scope for such attacks. However, the debate is unlikely to subside. No one will ever be able to prove conclusively that standards have moved up or down. But some Doubting Thomases see the huge increase in the number of A-level candidates - the proportion of 18-year-olds taking the exam rose from 15 to 36 per cent between 1966 and 1996 - as proof that the gold standard has been abandoned.

In fact, such statistics should be a cause for celebration. Traditionalists are right to insist that high standards must be maintained. But there can be no return to the time when A-levels were reserved for a small elite. Those days have gone, and the country is better for it.

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