The great declining achievement yawn

Jeremy Sutcliffe

As usual, the Sunday papers, being last to report the story, relied heavily on their leader writers to find something new to say. The great A-level controversy, which like the annual scandal of declining GCSE standards, is with us once again.

The Sunday Telegraph asked if schools could possibly bring about a fourfold increase in A-level passes since 1960 without lowering the standard. It blamed the Government for promoting vocational education and training as "equivalent" rather than "complementary" to an academic education. "This, of course, promotes equality, since the dull can now study at universities alongside the bright," it said.

Then it went on to blame the expansion of universities for "spurring the devaluation of the A-level, and in turn the devaluation of the GCSE - reinforcing the 'child-centred' approach that dominated many primary schools until recently".

Offering praise for the Government's new plans to expand work experience for 14 to 16-year-olds, it argued that pupils with no academic ability should not be forced to take exams - "even easy ones". Extra money should be found for them to expand work experience, with the cash coming from the universities which should revert to "their traditional academic ideals, and places earned by those who have the ability and tenacity for academic study - in other words, the elite".

The Sunday Times, confusingly, praised the idea of the A-level "gold standard" but went on to remind its readers what happened to the real gold standard. "Nearly 70 years ago we came off it, and the pound has been depreciating ever since."

Could there be university expansion without quality control? "It is imperative," it said, that Mrs Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, "keeps her promise of an inquiry".

It was down to the Observer for a contrary view. It's time for the right-wing commentators to stop complaining, it said.

This was typical of low-expectation Britain that when people succeeded they were said to have failed. Speculation that exams had become easier had about as much validity as the mutterings of old-timers that 'fings ain't wot they used t'be'.

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