Out-of-tune A-level song

There must be a song in it somewhere. Every year, as the grades of nearly 300,000 A-level candidates drop through the letterbox, the refrain "standards are falling" goes up because the results are better than last year's.

This summer, the critics have even more to complain about - a new modular exam, chopped into bite-sized pieces, which students take over two years, instead of the three-hour marathons which their elders and betters sat. Worse still, if candidates fail to make the grade at the first bite, they get another go. Students cannot win. In Scotland, where the pass-rate has fallen, there are calls for an inquiry. In England, where it is up, the Conservatives are also demanding an inquiry.

One explanation for this year's improved grades in England is simple. The new exam structure, which enables pupils to take the first three modules after a year and gain an AS-level, means that they can drop their weakest subjects.

The opportunity to resit exams and improve grades is undoubtedly another reason for better results. But what is wrong with giving pupils a second chance? Teachers know that pupils who struggle in their first year in the sixth form often blossom in their second. Nobody expects everybody to pass their driving test at the first attempt. Persistence after failure is an indispensable life skill. And a society which believes in lifelong learning must surely support the idea that those who have failed an exam once should be allowed to try again.

The new AS and A2 are far from perfect. They mean that students spend too much time being tested and too little being educated. Timetabling problems remain: some students are sitting five exams in a day. There is growing evidence, too, that these exams have not broadened the curriculum. Most students are opting for all arts or all sciences.

Singers of the falling standards song miss the point. We should be more worried about relieving the pressure on students and providing them with a more varied experience than about proclaiming that things ain't what they used to be.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you