Editorial: A is for augury

15th August 1997 at 01:00
This week, of course, was always going to be the one in which A-levels were a big news story - seeing that the results came out yesterday. But the turmoil surrounding them has been unprecedented and, apparently, took the Government by surprise.

Over the last five years or so, coverage of these exams settled down to a pattern of ritualised controversy. The results would come out, revealing a record number of candidates, and an increase in the proportion of passes. Right-wing policy wonks in once-radical think tanks would accuse the education establishment of making the exams easier; teachers and parents would rise angrily to the bait, complaining that such criticism devalued the efforts the young people had put in and that the British seemed unable to recognise an educational success story when it was under their noses. University admissions tutors would opine - according to taste or political inclination - as to whether this year's crop were better or worse prepared for degree-level study. There was a sense of comfortable predictability which flowed through the dog days of August.

This year, the results have followed the usual pattern: another rise in candidates (to 776,000) and another record pass rate (87.1 per cent). There has been barely a peep about falling standards - just a few mutters about the rigour of modular courses. Government ministers have praised young people's achievements in raising their game.

Instead, A-level week has seen a completely new controversy, precipitated by the Government, responded to with panic, and only partly resolved a matter of hours before the candidates received those long-awaited brown envelopes.

No one could have predicted a mere four weeks ago that such chaos would have been unleashed by the Dearing report and the Government's over-hasty response to it. In his Treasury-driven eagerness to start pulling in the revenue, David Blunkett and his advisers seem not to have predicted the "scramble for places", or the knock-on effect on students who were taking a gap year.

Leaving aside the fact that these students are often the most well-heeled,the "U-turn" announced yesterday - that students with deferred places would not after all have to pay fees - is a sensible outcome, and not too expensive. But the air of panic and chaos surrounding the decision, and the wasted time and energy involved in floating the unsustainable suggestion that those who did three months' voluntary work could be let off the fees, has added to the atmosphere of tension which always surrounds such high-stakes exams, and has enormously raised stress levels for the young people concerned.

Also mischievously added to the cooking pot was The Guardian story speculating that A-levels themselves were soon to be scrapped. Although it was swiftly denied, such a story risked exposing conflict within the education team. Baroness Blackstone is known to favour a complete overhaul of examinations at 18-plus with the aim of setting up a multi-subject baccalaureate-type qualification; the more politically cautious David Blunkett and Stephen Byers prefer to stick with A-level - while attempting to broaden and modernise it.

The crisis over deferred places and gap years may have been averted, but it still looks like being a turbulent September, as unprecedented numbers of young people make their way through the clearing process. In the end, the higher profile which has been given to higher education in teenagers' minds, the hard thought which they have had to give to the value of their own education and how it will be funded, the record numbers entering the system, and the likely beneficial effects on FE - will probably all be to the good.

But the impression of being caught on the hop by the unexpected consequences of their own decisions, and of having suddenly to invent new policies which could affect the future of hundreds of thousands of young people, has dented the image of a cool, calm and determined administration.

For at least a minute or two, it looked as if they did not know what they were doing after all. It seems unlikely that staying behind to mind the shop will be a popular ministerial option next August.

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