Entries for A-level have risen six per cent over the past five years while the number of 18-year-olds has fallen by 23 per cent. Whatever else might be said about standards, then, the popularity of A-levels, in spite of the growth of vocational rivals, shows they are not debased currency.
Recognising the inevitability of seasonal more-means-worse complaints, the boards point out that theirs is not the only finger on the grading trigger. Their work, they remind us, is ceaselessly scrutinised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and by the Office for Standards in Education which two years ago issued a rather flattering description of the boards' professionalism and procedures. According to OFSTED, the boards assess over 5 million hours of examination work with "a high degree of reliability" and "efficiency" in no more than eight weeks of the year.
The source of the exam boards' discomfort, of course, is that, whatever their efficiency and professionalism, questions can always be asked about the precision of their results; questions that have been asked many times before and which, quite properly, need to be addressed over and over again to ensure standards are standard. Examining is hardly an exact science and the circumstances in which the boards operate and the curriculum they examine are subject to constant change.
Part of Sir Ron Dearing's brief for his review of 16 to 19 qualifications was to maintain rigour in A-levels. His interim report provides a helpful unpacking of what that might amount to: "I take 'rigour' to mean that the level of demand on students should be maintained; that requirements are clear; that assessments by awarding bodies should be common national standards; that assessment should be firmly based, fit for purpose and consistent over time, with checks to ensure standards are being maintained," says Sir Ron.
He also highlights the questions to be asked in monitoring standards. One is: "Are grades comparable between different subjects at A-level?" Research by the University of Newcastle's A-level Information Service suggests on the basis of A-level candidates' GCSE attainments that difficulty of subjects can vary by a grade or more. That does not necessarily debase the currency either, provided a rate of exchange can be established for employers and college entrance. But it might matter if the idea that subjects like maths and physics are harder deters some students.
The most exercised question, however, is whether A-levels in general are as demanding as they used to be. Is the annual rise of about one per cent in the average level of achievement an improvement in performance or an easing of standards?
There are plenty of educational and social reasons to expect standards to rise in Britain, as they are throughout Europe. It is, after all, government policy in the form of national targets that they should. Qualifications matter more and the population is becoming increasingly middle class.
Seamus Hegarty of the National Foundation for Educational Research pointed on Radio 4's Today programme to the way the four-minute mile had become relatively commonplace as an example of genuine improvement against an objective standard. In reply education minister Eric Forth was clearly anxious to balance a studied scepticism (better running tracks, healthier diets and even drugs) against a wish not to do a Patten by rubbishing exam achievements at a time when half the nation is wrapped up with the hopes and fears of its young. For that reason, any inquiry into English, maths and science A-level standards over time urged by OFSTED and Sir Ron is unlikely to be announced until later in the year.
Quite how - or why - the A-level standards of 20 years ago are to be compared with today's, as OFSTED's Chris Woodhead has proposed, is unclear. With no surviving scripts or mark schemes, papers that have changed radically in style and syllabus over that time, and a quite different university entrance environment, the question that really ought to matter is Sir Ron's one about fitness for purpose. Is A-level doing the job expected of it in setting levels of knowledge and understanding required for the next 20 years, not the last?