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Rituals on-line

This country has always been strong on summer rituals. Most - like Wimbledon, Henley, Ascot and Royal garden parties - are showy, elitist and harmless, but the last event of the season is none of these. Mid-August brings that anachronistic rite-of-passage for able l8-year-olds, the posting of A-level results, followed by the routine wailing over falling standards and a handicap race for university places. Even the post office workers haven't dared to threaten the ritual by striking on the key date.

Next week's A-levels announcement has already been anticipated by contradictory leaks as to whether the official report on comparative standards over the years will show that questions have been getting easier or not. Postponing publication until September in order to avoid compromising this year's results obviously didn't work.

Meanwhile attention turns to whether this year's increase in modular A-levels has led to yet another triple whammy: a softer regime; improved results; lower standards. Worldly-wise Sir Ron Dearing has already recommended that the number of re-sits for each module should be limited, so that the modular route is not seen as a soft option, but perception is only part of the story. Quality and rigour are more important, however the exam load is divided up, and crucial to the credibility of Sir Ron's new framework for 16-19 qualifications.

It is too early yet for any national research reflecting the new popularity of modular A-levels, but in the absence of hard evidence better grades should not be assumed to equate with lower standards until we have found out whether motivation and continuous application are more important factors. Public knowledge matters too. It needs to be understood that universities - where many A-level students are headed - have already modularised many courses, and that externally marked A-level units do not equal continuous assessment.

The whole debate is misdirected since the value of any examination depends on the demands it makes, rather than on whether it is a traditional memory-test or spread out in units over two years. Life itself is more often continuous assessment than sudden-death tests, but then we have drifted a long way from any idea that schooling should be preparing young people for an effective life rather than an A-level lottery for a place in higher education.

Both universities and industry have used A-levels as a convenient proxy for a selection process, which penalises talented candidates without the prescribed mix of subjects and grades at a time when tight funding limits numbers. It is also unacceptably wasteful of youthful talent, does little to help us meet elusive national targets for education and training, and less for employers' demands for non-academic skills - all of which has been central to Sir Ron's 16-19 proposals.

So it is good news that the Universities and Colleges Admissions System has come up with plans for an ambitious new entry system (page 1) which could simultaneously relegate A-level points scores to the Dark Ages and put flesh on Sir Ron's ideas. An equally appealing aspect of the proposed computer-based system profiling individual progress across A-levels, vocational qualifications, key skills and modern apprenticeships would be that much of it could be filled in before A-level results came out in August (especially if they were built up in modules). Add to that the easy access of universities and examination boards to national computer systems, and a solution to the long battle over provisional offers, results dates and the academic year is at last in sight.

It may sound too good to be true, and it sounds complicated on paper but, like so many things, it looks much clearer on the computer screen. And it is worth working very hard to achieve.

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