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Goodbye gold, hello debate

So victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat. The new-style AS-levels, though all too often a shambolic experience for the guinea-pigs taking and teaching them, seem to be surprisingly successful.

Teachers and pupils have battled exam chaos, lack of textbooks and, some say, over-ambitious courses as well as the usual bedding-in problems of a new qualification. That AS results are only slightly behind those of the well-established A-level is a testament to dedication and hard work on a massive scale in schools and colleges.

But you don't rest on your laurels for long in education, and today the hard work starts all over again. The same group of pupil and teacher guinea-pigs is struggling with decisions on which subjects to pursue to A2 level, and getting to grips with how this course will operate.

Meanwhile, not only is the AS being frantically reconstructed for this September's students - spare a thought for the exam board alchemists trying to transform modular courses into a three-hour end-of-year paper - but its longer-term future is in a state of flux, with a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority inquiry due to report to ministers in December.

None of this is terribly good for the sanity of teachers or students, but the pain is necessary - though it should be lessened by officialdom as much as possible. The AS has to be got right: it's an important broadening of the further education structure which appears to have suffered from rushed implementation. If anything, the QCA inquiry should broaden its remit to ensure the whole exam structure is working well, and to start a public debate about the purpose of modern qualifications to forestall the regular August "dumbing-down" grumbles.

For there's no going back to the "gold standard" A- level as the exam of choice for 18-year-olds. Fifty years ago, when it was introduced, the A-level was there to identify the top 3 per cent of the age group to take an equally limited number of university places.

1951 also saw the production of the first commercial electronic computer and the first colour TV transmissions. Our world is not the same as that which gave birth to the A-level. It has been a tremendous exam, and this is not the end of it, but a much-needed new beginning.

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