Don't know they're born

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Exam results improving? Well, they must be getting easier then. Matthew Holehouse questions the vogue for robbing the 'youth of today' of credit due

The press can be quite good at offending people. The tabloids' reporting of asylum seekers and Gypsies, for example, is outrageous. The Spectator's infamous leader on Liverpudlians (said to be "wallowing in grief") was scandalous. Anyone who comes third in the Big Brother final can expect insults that would make Saddam Hussein blush.

But in terms of unadulterated, face-slapping rudeness, nothing quite compares to the way in which Fleet Street covers results day.

Any teacher handing out GCSE results in school yesterday, or A-levels last week, will be familiar with the emotions; the itchy anticipation, the indecision of whether to open the envelope or remain a while longer in blissful ignorance, the heady cocktail of mid-August fear and excitement.

Grades revealed, some students scream and skip across the playing fields towards the photographer from the local paper. A few are frustrated and head for home with cavernous disappointment.

And while we celebrate, or drown frustration, steely journalists are hard at work deriding the results. Highest-ever results? More successful, well-educated A-level and GCSE students than ever before? The exams must be getting easier. Nice try kids, you've worked hard, but you can't be that smart. Typically balanced editorials turn into Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen. "AS-levels? Luxury! In my day we 'ad 15-hour exams in chemical engineering and 90 per cent failure rates, if we were lucky."

Newspapers must question government statistics and ask whether a publicly funded system is working as effectively as it might. It's their job and, besides, what else is there to report on in mid-August? Yet in their impatience to criticise the Government, the press manages to snub thousands of teenagers and parents who read their papers. It's cutting off our noses to spite Ruth Kelly's face.

No other story on improvements in public services would be treated so cynically. Post-operation survival rates improving? Standards must be falling - it's getting far too easy to live these days. If headline writers can conjure jubilation when we are awarded the Olympics or have a royal wedding, why can't they do it when the hard work of half a million teenagers is being recognised?

It's hardly fair on staff either. All they have to show for the hours of lessons and marking and training days is our results, and so the cynicism is a slight on their work as much as ours.

Newspapers are bound by supply and demand like any other business, so, unless they are all seriously misjudging their readers, the public must have an appetite for the annual "depreciation of the gold standard" story.

Perhaps, when the congratulations are over, adults don't like the fact that young people might be better qualified than they are.

If our results reflect higher standards, conversation among the elderly will dry up; they can no longer criticise the "youth of today". Workforces will become terrified that they'll be laid off in favour of better qualified, dynamic, and more productive sixth-formers. Teachers will feel inadequate before their classes. Dishonest and tactless though it is, perhaps, for the good of the country, the myth of grade inflation must survive.

Matthew Holehouse has just finished Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school.

His column is running throughout the summer

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