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Stars and gripes are a class issue

This week we reached a mini milestone: the first 50 pupils were awarded the new A* A-level. Granted, it does not compare with the inaugural event on the other side of the Atlantic, but in its own humble way it illuminates a few fundamental issues about the educational discord on this side.

The A* was introduced because of concerns that bright pupils were not being stretched and because universities are having trouble distinguishing between the 27 per cent of candidates who achieve As.

Research from King's College London suggests that although the average performance of pupils has improved over the past 30 years, the brightest teenagers are significantly less able than they used to be. This has been blamed on the drive to lift the scores of the majority because - however understandable - the focus on the many neglects the needs of the brightest few.

The introduction of the A* is a tacit admission by the Government that this state of affairs cannot continue. But even before the enhanced qualification is out of the starting blocks, it is in trouble. Those who believe the A-level is still too lightweight have abandoned it for the perceived rigour of its rivals. Those who suspect A* is too elitist are horrified by early indications that the independent sector will grab an even greater share of the new, beefy top grade than they already do of the old.

In many respects, it's a sterile debate. Who can deny that exams that stretch pupils are a good thing? To mangle a great quote mightily: pupils should be challenged, their reach should exceed their grasp, or what's an education for? Conversely, who doubts that many bright and not-so-bright poor children could do better if only they had the resources and attention lavished on them that richer children enjoy? Or put another way, who would claim that educational achievement, or the lack of it, is purely a matter of intellect and not also of class?

To expect a modest exam module to add intellectual rigour without disturbing class sensibilities is certainly hoping for too much. But until traditionalists accept that their defence of an educational gold standard is also in part a defence of social privilege, and until the Government admits its fixation with getting everyone above a C-grade has ignored the needs of the brightest, then a sterile debate is all we can have.

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