Every August, it's the same old cynical stories

15th August 2003 at 01:00
It's nail-biting enough waiting for your exam results. But today's young people must also spend August as the subject of an extended policy workshop, where their hard work is repeatedly questioned.

The critics turned up the heat early this year. On August 4, the Daily Telegraph, ever sceptical about modern exams, gleefully announced that some independent schools may drop GCSEs - Eton's headteacher had described his candidates as being "like boy scouts collecting badges".

Then the Sunday Times declared that record A-level pass rates this year would place the exam "in danger of becoming an exam candidates cannot fail".

So, the plain-speaking chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, should have had his wits about him before talking to Monday's Times. Dr Boston's acknowledgement that pupils could skip GCSEs if they liked, became a cheeky front-page splash: "Schools free to drop 'too easy' GCSEs". By Tuesday, after acres of TV and radio debate, he had clarified what he meant, which the Daily Mail dubbed a "retreat" and the Guardian a "climbdown".

And there were more wheezes about. Tuesday's Mail backed the Tories' plan for an independent exam regulator, though its columnist Stephen Glover fretted that even such a paragon might not be free of the "anti-elitist johnnies of the educational establishment".

Meanwhile, schools minister David Miliband was gamely trying to defend the exam system. The Sun highlighted his comparison with Paula Radcliffe's record-breaking running - like marathons, exams had got no easier, but results were better than ever.

But since last month's report from Mike Tomlinson cast doubt on the future of A-levels and GCSEs, such a defence is harder to play this year.

At least standards were not being questioned when the Observer reported the plan by Steven Schwartz, the Government's higher education access tsar for students to apply for university courses after getting their results rather than before.

Students and heads applauded the plan in BBC and Sky news interviews. Most would have been wishing that the policy wonks and exam critics took their holidays during August like everybody else.

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