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Hue and cry over A Bad Thing

"It is obvious that in Manchester the comprehensive system is handicapping working-class children in a way unknown under the previous system. Only six out of 26 comprehensive schools had more than 50 A-level passes."

"I'd like to think standards are going up. I suspect there has been dilution. "

A swift trawl through the archives shows that the August sport of hanging the fears of the nation on the results of A-level exams is an old and occasionally contradictory phenomenon.

Both of the above quotes come from Sir Rhodes Boyson, former headteacher and Tory education minister and high priest of the A-level hand-wringing brigade whose membership relies heavily on the Daily Mail, right-wing leader writers and the Institute of Directors.

The first, from The TES in 1978, was Sir Rhodes's proof that comprehensive schooling was reducing the number of A-level passes in Manchester and was therefore A Bad Thing. The second - a quote he gave to the Daily Mail in 1992, but rather similar to remarks he has made ever since - supports his view that standards were falling because A-level passes were rising, and was therefore A Bad Thing.

Confused? Well, the leader writers of 1996 certainly are. Take the Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times, neither known for their pinko views on market forces. Yet both call for one A-level board.

"Only then would we know that standards were improving and that pupils could be fairly judged, one against the other. Only then would we have a fair system that would be in the best interests of children, not of a government hungry for credit derived from bogus successes," thundered The Sunday Times.

The Telegraph, scornful of this "fraud", decided to do its own research into standards. "If any readers have kept their mock examinations or essays written for modular courses undertaken during their schooldays, we should like them to send them to us, indicating the year in which they were written and the exam question that they answered."

"A failed exam," opined the Financial Times leader. But read on. "Traditionalists too often ignore the fact that the UK's A-level standards are high by international standards, precisely because they were once designed for a small elite. They were needed to sort prize cattle from the herd.

"Now that the examination is part of mass education, it must serve wider functions." As a first step, minimum university entrance must be two A-levels and three AS-levels, enabling abler pupils to show their quality and all potential students to study a spread of subjects.

The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday went further. The Guardian's leader, while pointing out that many extra passes came from changing the marking system, so abolishing the 30 per cent automatic fail rate, added: "Of course they have changed. And so they should. Any nation that confines its education to an elite is doomed to failure in the modern world."

At the Independent on Sunday, meanwhile: "The hue and cry about A-levels has been inescapable . . . The truth is that the A-level is the symbol of everything that is wrong with the English education system. Last week's fuss is typical of a preoccupation with educating the elite properly and neglecting most of the rest." And so on for seven inches.

The solution? The Guardian applauds Sir Ron Dearing's applied A-levels. "The sooner they start, the better." The IoS was feeling even more radical. "The A-level has to go . . . mainly because the improvement of education for everyone will never be achieved while the only 18-plus exam that counts is exclusively academic. Work-related qualifications of real status are essential to solve the nation's skills deficit."

The Observer roped in Tory MP George Walden "with a solution well to the Left of Tony Blair". Not difficult, but what is it? "While other European countries have one national culture of education, in Britain there are two: a superior one for a social and moneyed caste, and an inferior one for the rest."

What's this radical solution then? "To say that the involvement in the national educational enterprise of the most articulate and influential people in society would help not only with structures and resources, but in the maintenance of high standards for all, seems to me a truism." And, er, that's it.

But the Observer scored on most inventive stunt of the week: getting the head boy of Sir Rhodes's old school to take the same 1943 Higher School Certificate exam that the arch-critic sat. The result: David Buskey would have been marked down for being "too clever" 50 years ago. The examiner's conclusion?: "This is an A-grade candidate. But the question doesn't require him to demonstrate his ability. In 1943 he would have been given a borderline B or C. He would never be expected to do this kind of mind-numbing task now."

And Sir Rhodes? "Only one thing will prove whether standards have slipped and that is to remark the scripts from the past. Everything else is just bilge. "

Next week: 18-year-olds bemoan the falling standards of A-level panics. Or perhaps not.

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