Editorial - Nothing changes in the annual A-levels uproar

20th August 2010 at 01:00
The inevitable indignant results response is a tired ritual that ignores the truth

England and Wales' exam system is increasingly rich in subtlety and diversity, especially following the creation of the A* A-level grade and the government support of the IGCSE. With a new administration installed in Westminster and a coalition in Cardiff, changes are afoot on an almost daily basis, some thoughtful, some knee-jerk.

But when it comes to August, the whole thing is portrayed in depressingly simple terms - politicians, newspaper pundits, academics and pub bores will all offer half-baked opinions about the results, which, in the case of Wales, have bucked an aged trend by dipping slightly.

Because this is Silly Season and journalists around the UK are desperate for any kind of story, there are several hardy perennials, beyond the drop on this side of the Severn, without which yesterday, today and the weekend would not be the same.

First up, The Daily Telegraph will (almost certainly) have tracked down pretty triplets from a well-known girls' school, who have picked up straight As and are off to Oxbridge. Blood pressure among retired colonels rockets.

The first results are followed by a burst of UK-wide hand-wringing, complete with staggeringly ill-informed comment pieces mourning the "death of the A-level as a gold standard". This hysteria informs the politicians' response, as they line up to issue statements starting with the phrase, "In no way should we undermine the achievement and hard work that has gone into these results, but ..."

These MPs and AMs go on to outline undercooked ideas on how qualifications must regain the rigour that they had in a mystical age when every garden thrilled to the sound of songbirds and the unemployed used their pedal bikes to find work alongside that nice Mr Tebbit.

As the dust settles, the first Laura Spence type emerges. Normally from a comprehensive in a deprived area, this surprised protagonist - who has a gazillion A*s and yet has not won a place at Oxbridge - becomes the centrepiece of a well-rehearsed dance, in which the left attacks top universities for snobbishness and the right warns that "social engineering must be avoided at all costs".

And last, but not least, are the businessmen, who with furrowed brow and dark tie mournfully launch themselves on Question Time audiences armed with misleading statistics that illustrate how the school and exam system is "letting down British industry" by providing workers incapable of spelling "cat".

It would be lovely to pen this column calling for an intelligent public debate on what the nation really wants from an exams system.

But to be honest, one may as well leap aboard a Ryanair jet to Spain and find some windmills to tilt at. A better idea is to pour yourself a snifter - whether your results news is good or bad - and keep out of the media storm.

Ed Dorrell, News Editor, E ed.dorrell@tes.co.uk.

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