'Exam standards remain high'

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Ed Balls kicks off annual war of words over results. Today's generation of teachers the best ever, he says

ED BALLS, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, today launched a pre-emptive strike in the annual media battle over exam standards, saying GCSEs and A-levels have not dumbed down.

Writing exclusively in The TES, Mr Balls said claims of falling standards were demoralising for teachers and insulting for pupils who had worked hard all year for their marks.

He said improving results were to be expected given better teaching and increased government investment in schools, although standards among lower achieving younger pupils were not rising fast enough.

And claims that "everybody" is turning up to university with three A grades at A-level were completely wrong, he said only 23,000 out of a year group of 655,000 reached this level last year.

"It is a sign of success, not dumbing down, that we have more young people taking A-levels and going on to university or college," he said.

His comments anticipate the annual debate expected to be revisited in the next two weeks about A-level and GCSE results.

Attention has been focused in recent years on steadily rising rates of passes and top grades. The A-level pass rate has risen every year in the past 24, nearing 97 per cent last year. The proportion of A grades among candidates surged to a new high of 24.1 per cent in 2006, double what it was in 1990.

At GCSE, the A*-C rate has improved for eight successive years, to 62.4 per cent last year. Last summer, 19 per cent of entries were awarded A*, compared with 13 per cent when the grade was introduced in 1994.

Mr Balls said the improvements in results tallied with reports from Ofsted that the current generation of teachers are the best ever. He said the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority kept standards under review and that an independent commission had found that no examination system was as carefully managed as that of A-levels.

He said it made no sense to compare exam questions from papers set decades ago with those of today, as curriculum content changed substantially over the years. And he criticised those who called for caps on the number of top grades. "If more young people are making the top grade, and aiming higher, we should cheer, not carp," he said.

At the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference in Harrogate this week, Peter Morris, of the union's Swansea branch, said exam questions had been changed from being rigorous to "woolly, touchy-feely with very little merit".

But Kevin Brennan, the children's minister, countered by citing independent evidence that GCSE and A-level standards had been maintained over time.

Mr Balls also attempted to head off criticism from business about the English and maths standards of their new recruits after a survey by the CBI lobby group showed last summer that a third of 140 employers had run remedial courses during the previous year.

He said functional skills qualifications, which pupils will need to pass in order to gain a good GCSE and the new diploma, would take "centre stage" in the new secondary curriculum.

Many teachers will welcome the Government's intervention. But others will disagree. Focus group research for the QCA in 2002 found that "on the whole, teachers suspected exam standards had not been maintained over time".

The question has not been repeated, so there is no up-to-date information on what they think.

The QCA today published the final details of new A-levels to be taught from next year, with a new A* grade designed to "raise the height of the exam hurdle" for high-achievers.

Ed Balls, page 16

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