Brandishing the standard in the battle for truth;Opinion;Further Education

12th November 1999 at 00:00
WHERE does the truth lie in the great "standards" debate? Normally this is the province of the summer, the silly season when government is on holiday and the papers suddenly discover that exam results can be turned into an academic battleground in the interests of "news".

But this year (for reasons best known to himself) the silliness has been prolonged by the headmaster of Winchester School and his recent pronouncement on A-levels. Surprise, surprise, he finds them devalued and wants something tougher to stretch his poor lads' under-taxed brains.

Like many in this debate, of course, the head of one of the country's posher schools has a vested interest in pushing such a view. His truth surely has to do with the exclusivity of his product. If increasing numbers of state schools, sixth-form colleges and (perish the thought) FE institutions have a chance of matching those glittering A grades

so effortlessly reeled off by his boys, then why shell out oodles of cash each year

to get what is available elsewhere for nothing?

Then there is the truth of the university teachers. With the applications season in full swing and only 33 UCAS shopping days to go to their mid December version of Christmas, now is the time for them to contribute to the debate. They too (or at least those who make the noise) feel that A-levels ain't what they used to be. If only, they complain, students could be taught to write in sentences and spell simple words correctly.

From the other side of the fence comes the truth of the "every day, in every way, things are getting better" lobby. Most usually these are the teachers whose pupils year on year are pushing up those pass rates and grade averages. For them, each new height is greeted with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Aren't they (the pupils) just wonderful? And their achievements - aren't they wonderful too? And their teachers? Well, yes, obviously, but modesty forbids .

There are other regular players in this debate too - each of them as predictable as the next in their view of the "truth". The Daily Telegraph reader, for instance - or at least the man (it is always a man) who used to read the Telegraph before it went all namby-pamby and started trying to appeal to readers outside their dotage.

For him education has gone to the dogs because everything (not least the Telegraph) has gone that way. It started with the Education Act of 1870, picked up speed in 1944 and went into total free fall with the death of the 11-plus and the rise of the comprehensive. Oh, and tomatoes don't taste like they used to either.

Then there is the Captain of Industry. His beef, his truth, is not so much that standards within the individual subjects have declined as that so many of the wrong subjects are taught in the first place. To feed his enterprises he needs practical skills and he can never understand why schools and colleges can't chuck all this liberal education nonsense out the window and concentrate on the IT and telephone manners he needs to staff his network of call centres.

And so on and so on. Where is the truth? Where does it lie? Now I can't pretend to be a prejudice-free zone either. But, after 20 years of putting students through A-levels and at least 10 advising them on university entrance, I feel I've got as good a grasp as anyone on the issues.

First, the standard of academic attainment required to pass an A-level has gone down. Not by a huge amount - although it's difficult to judge precisely how much when you are working in the field and the decline happens incrementally - but it has happened.

For me this is not a disaster. It's not even a problem. When I took my own A-levels they were an elite qualification, aimed at a percentage of the population you could count on one hand. Today anything up to a third of us pass examinations at level three. In other words, while a carat or two may have been shaved off the so-called "gold" standard, it's hardly turned us all into vegetables!

The same is surely the case with the universities. It is easier to get in than it once was and the increasing proportion of "good" degrees, like the growing number of As and Bs at A-level, suggests a dilution of some sort in grades awarded.

This isn't a problem either. There has been no dramatic drop in academic standards. But with 30 to 40 per cent now expecting to go on to higher education, can we really expect it to be exactly the same as when degrees were the sole province of the "boffins"?

The debate - the search for the truth - will continue. The next chapter begins with Curriculum 2000 and the changes that will come to A-levels and GNVQs in the new century. Personally I suspect that what is proposed - an anaemic compromise between wholesale change and leaving well alone - will end up pleasing no-one.

Or, to put it another way, the quest for truth goes on.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE

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