Editor's comment: Tory obsession with standards gets us nowhere

21st August 2009 at 01:00
The only question worth asking is whether exams are fit for their intended purpose

"The meaning of paragraphs is unknown to many, the semi-colon has virtually disappeared and commas are scattered at random. The influence of women's magazines . and TV is more and more evident." Given the despair of the English language examiner over the semi-literate efforts of 16- year-olds, it isn't perhaps surprising that Latymer, one of the premier schools in the country, is equally disparaging over the English literature exam: "We don't enter our brightest boys for it, although for the weaker brethren it is easy to pass and gives them another subject." And what is one to make of the majority of history candidates who could not spell "independence" even though it appeared in the question, or the poor sap who thought "Sir Bastopol was the hero of the Battle of Balaclava"?

The Conservatives are on a mission to inject "rigour" into an exam system that they believe has been "dumbed down". They, along with a sizable chunk of the press - well, the bit that would love to call Jeremy Clarkson "mate" - think GCSEs and A-levels are too easy. Everything is going to hell in a handcart and only a return to basics and "hard" subjects can retrieve the situation. Hence their latest proposals to stop the rot - downgrading "soft" subjects and league tables purged of vocational options.

Inconveniently, the examples quoted at the beginning were from 1959, not 2009. They prove nothing - only that our grandparents suffered from as much indigestion over education as we do now. There again, they had plenty to complain about. O-levels were an exercise in recall and A-levels allowed pupils to ignore 80 per cent of the syllabus and disagree with the question if they forgot the rest. Or perhaps not .

It is impossible to say conclusively that standards have declined over time. Changing context - even in the sciences - renders comparison nigh on impossible. It is a fool's errand and a peculiarly British one. It gets us nowhere. The correct questions - and ones the Tories should be asking - are: what are GCSEs and A-levels for and do they do the job?

The problem with GCSEs, for instance, is not that they are easy, but that they are unnecessary. No other country in Europe thinks it worthwhile to test 16-year-olds. Why would they when education for most ends at 18? Yet this pointless exam consumes huge sums of money and - at 15 per cent - has a margin of error that would shame an Iranian opinion poll. The problem with A-levels is that they force pupils to specialise far too early, encourage them to drop core subjects prematurely and do not include an accepted vocational option.

The Conservatives' proposals are about as useful as tits on a bull. Fiddling around with pass rates is the job of a qualifications authority, not a government. Deciding which exams are appropriate for higher education is the job of a university, not a government. And playing to the gallery is the job of an insecure opposition, certainly not a government.

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