Please spare A-levels the Becks 'n' Best test

It has been a tense summer in the Baker household. Daughter number one awaited GCSE results, daughter number two the results of a music grade. Even my wife was on tenterhooks over a professional exam.

As any family psychologist would have predicted, it boiled over in the holidays. It was not the rest of the family. It was me.

The cause of my irritable, malevolent rage was A-level results day. It is Groundhog Day. It is the recurring nightmare that wakes you bolt upright at 3am. It is that skin rash which flares up at times of stress. Would you allow me a moment to let it all out: I really hate A-level results day.

What drives me to apoplexy is the facile rush to compare today's results with those from the distant past. It serves no purpose except to obstruct more worthwhile inquiry into whether the exam system is working.

Imagine for a moment Gary Lineker and the football pundits in the studio. The whistle has just gone: Manchester United have been defeated in the European Cup Final.

Instead of analysing United's defensive strategy, the effect of Sir Alex's tactical substitutions, or the quality of the opposition, Alan Hansen opens up with: "Well, Gary, I think the big question is whether this United team is as good as the side of 1975."

That is not professional punditry. Comparing David Beckham to George Best is harmless fun in the pub, but it does not explain how to achieve results in today's games.

Those recalling, through the golden filter of nostalgia, Best dribbling down the wing, will brook no argument that today's footballers are more skilful than yesterday's heroes. But there can be no conclusive answer.

Similarly, to all those pundits who say today's exams are easier than in the past, I say: "prove it". They cannot.

Equally to blame are the exam boards with their absolute insistence that A-levels today are the same standard as in 1951. That is ridiculous. Exams have adapted to changing circumstances and purposes. You can no more prove they are the same standard than you can prove they are easier or harder. Every official inquiry into "standards over time" has failed to produce a definitive answer.

Today's exams are for today's students, today's employers, and today's universities. The pundits should ask: are today's exams fit for today's purposes?

More useful questions would be: do today's exams test the skills and knowledge young people will need for work or further study? Are they the best method of testing? What has been learnt? Do they give enough differentiation between candidates?

So let us forget all this nonsense about A-levels as the "gold standard". Let us have a bit of honesty. Exams have always been a fix.

When A-levels began they were norm referenced. In the 1960s the proportion achieving each grade was artificially set in advance. If, by some quirk, every child born in 1950 was a genius, the percentage of A grades achieved at A-level 18 years later would still have been limited to around 10 per cent.

So let us also have no more of this twaddle about how an exam with a pass-rate close to 100 per cent is worthless. Do the morons who say an exam with no failures is not worth having think that this somehow means everyone gets an A-level? Do they also think that just because we call it a "pass" that an E grade is as good as an A grade?

If there is virtually no failure rate in Oxbridge finals, does that mean those degrees are worthless? If very few final-year medical students are failed, does that mean we are producing thousands of incompetent doctors?

Of course not. These exams, like the A-level, are only attempted by those who have already proved themselves in earlier tests. Half the age group does not even attempt A-level courses. Only a minority of school-leavers achieves three A-levels at grade C or above.

And why did no one ask whether today's students passed more A-levels than last year's students? In fact, as the number of entries fell - probably because some decided on the basis of AS grades that the full A-level would be too hard - some 11,000 fewer A-level passes were achieved this year. So, why did no one demand to know why A-levels had suddenly got harder?

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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