Done over in The Moral Maze

5th September 1997 at 01:00
On "Bloody Thursday" - A-level results day - even Radio 4's The Moral Maze took up the tired refrain: results up, standards down; too many young people, clearly not as clever as we were, are now going to university. The topic strained the "moral" bit of the programme title, but they got round that with a parenthesis in the introduction saying that education used always to be about morality. The implication, unchallenged, was that it is no longer.

I was the second witness in the debate. The invitation had come the previous afternoon and I had been quite excited. The young researcher who rang me said that the producer might speak to me later to explain the objectives of the programme. That never happened.

And so, 15 minutes before the programme, I was sitting uneasily in the corridor outside the studio, making conversation with the other three witnesses. The first one was another retired headteacher, a natural for the programme because of his clear point of view. He "knew" standards were going down because the pass rate was going up, and any examination with a pass rate of 87 per cent was a "disgrace".

Michael Buerk came out into the corridor to speak to us for a few moments. He said that the programme was like a dinner party without the dinner. Not like anything I have attended, it wasn't.

The programme began and Sunshine was gestured in to the studio. The rest of us listened as it was broadcast into the corridor. Sunshine appeared to enjoy himself hugely, recounting how badly the candidates had done in the scripts he had marked in classical civilisation this summer - he told tales of bad spelling and of solecisms. The Moral Maze team tutted in sympathy and shock. As a knock-down argument demonstrating that standards could never go up, he quoted his own registers from his last ten years of teaching, where the students never did any better. No one challenged him. He wound up by remarking that he never misspelt himself because he had been "cuffed" for it in primary school. The team chuckled its approval. Meanwhile, I was being gestured in.

No one has thought to label the team, so I eyeballed one, calling him Dr Starkey, and it was the wrong one. This did not seem to please, because these people are celebs. There are no gentle introductions. Witnesses are allotted six minutes, which is a long time in radio terms. I stumbled through, saying nothing that I intended and allowing a wrong international comparison to go unchallenged. Then I was gestured away. On the escalator in Oxford Circus underground I pondered the accuracy of the French expression l'esprit de l'escalier, which means "the wit of the staircase" and refers to the wonderful phrases you think of after an interview.

The experience demonstrated to me how special are the skills of broadcasters, and how well people like Sunshine will always do. It was disillusioning to see that the team's fluency was supported by full notes, almost scripts. But more importantly it illustrated at what a poor level the debate about examination standards is still being conducted. There has been a full official report on standards in A-level over the past 20 years, which shows that the examinations have changed a great deal but have not dropped in standard. The report is largely ignored, because it does not say what people want it to say. There is room for much discussion about the nature of the changes, but that does not make for good soundbites.

I taught in a privileged school which was not at all typical. But that does not make my experience completely irrelevant - we were subject to the same pressures as everyone else. If our grades went up, the school was congratulated in the press, with the implication that the staff had done a good job in preparing the students. Like many people I contend that the narrowness of the three A-level system gives scope for students to be trained carefully over a limited range of skills and therefore be coached to success. The exams have not gone soft, but we have all been under pressure to refine our techniques for defeating the examiners.

The debate on the future of A-levels has been opened again, surely this time to reach some conclusion. If it is to be conducted without prejudice, teachers will need to explain to the public some of the myths about the benefits of the "Gold Standard" and the fallacies of the breadth versus depth debate.

Joan Clanchy is a former headmistress of the North London Collegiate School

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