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A-levels getting easier? You must be joking

Cambridge undergraduate Ellen Bennett says her first year at university was a doddle after sixth form

So, A-levels are easy, are they Mr Woodhead? That's not how I remember them. Having sat my A-levels last year, I am now an undergraduate at Cambridge University going up for my second year this week. A great deal of fuss has been made about students working 54-hour weeks under the new A-level system. I know how they feel - I worked a similar amount under the old, and hope I never have to face anything so difficult again.

Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, recently claimed improving A-level results were a sign of easier exams, and called for an investigation into standards. A-level grades have certainly improved. In 1990, the proportion of A-E grades was 77 per cent; this summer, it rose to 89.1 per cent - an increase of more than 12 percentage points in 10 years. In 1990, 11.6 per cent of results were grade A, compared with 17.8 per cent today - a rise of more than 6 percentage points over 10 years. But to say this is a result of easier exams is an insult to teachers and students alike.

If Mr Woodhead is right, the three As and a B I scored in 1999 are worth less than they would have been 10 years ago - simply because fewer people were getting such marks in those days. It makes about as much sense as the idea that, because more athletes than ever can run 100 metres in under 10 seconds, 100 metres is shorter than it used to be.

The English literature course at Cambridge University is considered hard, because of the amount of work set. Friends at other universities say the one to three essays I do each week is as many as they do in a term.

But, as an upper-sixth student, I did at least as many essays a week - usually more. They were done in the evenings. Now, I can relax in the evenings, as work is done in the library, during the day. University essays demand more reading and more thought - but, hour for hour, the course is a lot less work.

Furthermore, the course involves only English literature. A-level students have to worry about several subjects at once; it's a juggling act, and I was always terrified that if I paid too much attention to the history "ball", I'd drop the English one.

So why is it that the chief inspector, and others who agree with him - notably the Tories' education spokeswoman, Theresa May - cannot accept that rising A-level grades may be the result of hard work on the part of students and teachers?

"Students, supported by parents and teachers put a phenomenal amount of work into their A-levels," says Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman for education and employment, "and it is deeply inappropriate to try to belittle their achievement with talk of dumbing down."

And, as Neil Hopkins, principal of Peter Symonds college, Winchester, one of th biggest A-level centres in the country, points out: "It's impossible to compare A-levels now to those 10 years ago. All you can do is compare a 1999 paper to a 1998 paper - that's as far back as you can go. Students change, teaching techniques change - even subjects change. All we can do is ensure that standards of exam papers are maintained over successive years - and there are many bodies in place to ensure that this is so."

So, if the exams aren't getting easier, why are the grades getting better? Tony Smith, who taught me English at Sir Roger Manwood's school, Sandwich, Kent, and is a marker for the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts exam board, believes there's been a cultural shift. "A-levels haven't got any easier since I took them in the late Sixties," he says. "The form of the question has often changed - they are more directed now - but they haven't got easier.

"What has changed is the culture. Students now are the result of the Thatcher generation and have been instilled with the work ethic. They work harder than we did - and the teaching itself is more strategic. The league tables make it much more competitive - you're always trying to do better than last year."

My generation knows that it's competitive out there - if you want to get a good job or go to a good university, you need top A-level results. As more jobs than ever demand academic qualifications, more people work for those qualifications, so the standard rises.

It's tough, and the new A-level system can only make it tougher. Sixth-formers now have to sit an average of four AS-levels in their lower sixth, and drop to three A2s in their upper sixth - an AS plus an A2 equals a full A-level.

On the surface, this may seem to make little difference. After all, an AS-level is half an A-level, and haven't students always done half an A-level in the lower sixth? Yes, but they have not always sat external exams at the end of it.

The pressure of an A-level exam is huge - you know it could affect the rest of your life. This was on my mind throughout my upper sixth, pushing me to work harder, and worrying me when things got difficult. Now, it will be on student's minds throughout both sixth-form years, putting teenagers under more pressure than ever before.

As if this weren't enough, there will also be more diversity - one more ball to juggle, one ball closer to dropping the lot.

So let's not tell students who do well that their grades are due to nothing more than falling exam standards. Sixth-formers need all the support and encouragement they can get - how about it, Mr Woodhead?

Ellen Bennett achieved A grades in English, religious studies and general studies and a B grade in history in 1999. She is now a student at Christ's College, Cambridge, and deputy editor of the Cambridge Student Newspaper

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