How ministers made exams popular

Ministers dread the August exam statistics. Rising pass rates are seen as "dumbing down", and there is no strong evidence to rebut this claim. This year was particularly tricky, with the large leap in A-level pass rates, though the smaller rise in GCSE passes proved less controversial.

But the groundwork was done carefully. A maths inquiry set up in July enabled ministers to respond when 12,400 fewer candidates took maths A-level. Schools standards minister David Miliband's argument that we should encourage more young people to stay in education past the age of 16 in The Times helped shape the debate. The line that AS-levels focus weaker students' minds even made AS-levels seem popular. So much so that shadow education secretary Damian Green's call to scrap AS-levels was dubbed "silly" by the Guardian.

Ministers will have been pleased with broadcasters' coverage the night before students got their grades. Mike Baker on the BBC 10 O'Clock News used clear graphics to explain the reasons for the rise in A-level pass rate, while minister Stephen Twigg had strong answers to rebut ex-chief inspector Chris Woodhead in a live Newsnight debate.

Gender dominated the GCSE debate. Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips started the week bemoaning exam feminisation and the "widening gap" between girls and boys, but by mid-week ministers were able to tell the paper that any change in that gap was "marginal".

Downing Street stirred things up in The Times, re-publicising powers to close "up to 500 schools" which might miss GCSE targets. But its spin undersold progress: last year the number struggling fell to 372.

But it was left to GCSE candidate Sophie Hollender, 15, in the Telegraph to remind us that the annual standards debate "fills candidates with immense self-doubt".

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1997 to 2001

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