Publication of this year's GCSE and A-level results has again raised the question of whether a pass (grades C and E respectively) represents a satisfactory level of academic achievement, bearing in mind their use as criteria for admission into higher education.
My experience as a lecturer in higher education and a former secondary schoolteacher suggests it does not, at least for English.
Last year, for example, I taught a first-year theatre studies module on Shakespeare at a university where I do not normally work. Most of the 57 students had recently left school and belonged, notionally, to the top third of the ability range for their age group. All had gained at least grade C in English GCSE. Many had higher grades as well as passes at A-level in English language or literature.
As part of the module, the students had to write three short reviews (none longer than 600 words) of professional productions, as well as a critical record to accompany their practical work. Six failed to submit a complete set of assignments, while the quality of written English of 14 students, about a quarter of the group, was poor or very poor.
Weaknesses included spelling, punctuation and grammar. Use of the apostrophe 's' was a particular problem, as were demarcation of sentences, construction of coherent syntax and the correct spelling of even the names of the characters in the five set plays.
Confusion of one word for another was widespread: "are" for "our", "there" for "their", "know" for "no", "discuss" for "disgust", "pitchers" for "pictures" for example. Among the misspellings were: "tryed", "desition" for "decision", "encorporated", "substanciate", "dimensia" for "dementia", "gallavant", "abserlutly", "equivalant", "dispite" and "apparant".
A sentence from one student's work shows the range of weaknesses found in the assignments of all 14. It comes from a review of Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of The Merchant of Venice, in which students were asked to comment on its treatment of race and racism:
"Sadly even today, ther is still alot of rascism between different cultures mainly black and white and in this production they seemed to be playing anti-rascism in an opposite way there was alot of black actors such as Antonio and porcha who played the so called better race of the christians and in the past because of slavery and cultural misunderstandings coloured people where considered as a lower race so the production did play with the idea of race and rascism."
Writing of this quality does not merit a pass in a public examination in English at 16 or 18-plus; let alone meet the standard expected of a first-year undergraduate.
Having identified the students with serious weaknesses, I invited them to make an appointment to see me. Only seven took the trouble to do so. The degree of ignorance these interviews revealed was breathtaking. One student with a grade A GCSE and a D in A-level English language simply did not know the elementary rules for using the apostrophe 's'. Another was unaware that "anti-semanticism", which she had used throughout her essay, was a mistake for "anti-semitism".
Even more shocking, the writing of the six exchange students taking the module (two Americans and four Europeans) was largely free of such weaknesses, although the four Europeans made errors of a kind one might expect from non-native speakers of English.
As to whether the standard required to achieve a pass in GCSE or A-level has gone down in recent years, on one point I am certain. None of the 14 poor writers would have been entered for, much less have passed, the O-level English language I taught in comprehensi ve school 30 years ago.
Robert Jeffcoate is a part-time lecturer in education at the University of Liverpool