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Let's celebrate exam success then make sure it continues

The results season is almost here, and these are nervous weeks of waiting for young people, teachers and parents. But while the waiting goes on, I want us to celebrate the achievement of our young people and encourage them to stay on in education.

It is an annual ritual for some education commentators to claim that our exam results are evidence of grade inflation and "dumbing down". This is demoralising for teachers and insulting for pupils who have worked hard all year. Ofsted has reported that we have the best generation of teachers ever. With sustained improvements in the quality of teaching and increased investment in schools, we should expect exam results to get better, as they have done steadily over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the independent Qualifications and Curriculum Authority keeps standards under close review, and a panel of independent international experts has concluded that no exam system is so tightly managed as our A-levels. Last year, out of 655,000 students, only 23,000 got three or more A grades. So the idea that everybody turns up to university with three As is just wrong. It is a sign of success that we have more young people taking A-levels and going on to university or college.

But we must not be complacent not least because we don't yet know what this August's results will show. I believe we must now raise our game again and redouble our efforts for the years ahead.

First, while we have had a decade of rising standards, the pace at which results have risen has slowed in recent years. That is why I have said we need a new focus on standards and discipline in the classroom. More and more children are reaching the expected levels in English and maths, but we have not done well enough in raising the performance of lower-achieving pupils, especially at the crucial key stages 2 and 3. So in the coming year, we will focus on reading and maths in primaries and personalised learning in secondaries so that no one falls behind.

Second, I want to do more to reassure parents and employers that we are vigilant on exam standards and will resist any pressure to relax. We have a rigorous and independent exams regulator committed to safeguarding standards and grade integrity, and I am determined to keep it that way. But I and my ministerial colleagues, Jim Knight and Andrew Adonis, will also be robust in rejecting some misconceptions about exam standards. Some commentators say that only the top 10 per cent of entries should ever get the top grade and that the new A* grade is a sign of grade inflation. But if more young people are making the top grade and aiming higher, then we should cheer, not carp.

It makes no sense to compare questions from today's exams with those from decades ago. Curriculum content has changed as new priorities have emerged the QCA takes that fully into account when it assesses standards. I understand why employers worry that improving exam results do not tally with their experience of hiring school-leavers who lack functional maths, English or IT skills. But 30 years ago, only the brightest took on white-collar, professional work or ever thought they might use a computer. Today, most people use computers every day.

So I will work closely with employers. It is right to demand that education and teaching keep pace with the demands for skills across the workforce. That is why functional skills in English, maths and ICT will take centre-stage in the revised secondary curriculum and in our new diplomas. There is a lot to do to raise standards and allow all young people to use their talents to the full. We need to improve teaching standards further, back teachers to keep discipline and support quality leadership in schools.

Let's start by recognising that we begin from a strong platform of achievement, and celebrate the success of our teachers and young people this August.

Ed Balls

Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

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