'I told you so' culture infects A-level counsel

18th October 2002 at 01:00
ccepting advice is a good thing, especially if it means delaying government initiatives. At least that has become received wisdom with the A-level crisis. And there are many who obviously knew years ago that the OCR exam board would be over-zealous in its re-grading of this year's A2 results. If only ministers had listened to them.

Mike Tomlinson's first report on this year's marking problems exonerated everyone, even if Bill Stubbs had sealed his fate with his televised outburst against Estelle Morris. But when Tomlinson declared the problems "an accident waiting to happen" it was manna from heaven for erstwhile soothsayers everywhere.

We may now be a bit wiser about just how big an accident it has really been. But those wishing to apportion blame say we must establish what ministers were advised before Curriculum 2000 and whether they took that advice. And Nick Tate, now headmaster of Winchester, reminds us that he urged delay as chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Yet civil servants and advisers urge ministers to delay everything. Anybody watching the Yes, Minister repeats on satellite TV needs no reminding that Sir Humphrey uses procrastination to bury projects he dislikes. In real life, there were also those who wanted the literacy hour delayed. Others said it could never be introduced successfully nationally, yet were happy to claim the credit when it started to work.

And after 18 years out of government, Labour was impatient to deliver educational change. Much of that impatience paid off: we have universal nursery education, lower primary class sizes, fewer failing schools and higher teaching standards as a result. But even that fast pace was tempered by the limited money available in the first two years. Indeed, many complain that teacher-training bursaries or pay reforms should have been introduced sooner than they were.

Moreover, nobody remembers that Labour ministers did delay the new A-levels for two years. The original timetable set by the last Tory education secretary Gillian Shephard would have seen them introduced in September 1998 rather than 2000 (something the current shadow education secretary Damian Green forgets as he plans to abolish "Labour's AS-levels"). Delay can help to get things right. An extra year might have helped the new A-levels. And although I favour an eventual move to baccalaureate exams, there is no way it should be introduced in anything less than five years. Ken Spours, who is developing the English bac, says that it should be 10.

But politicians are judged on delivery after four years at most. By the time they pilot policies effectively, they are likely to have been written off. In any case, ministers cannot act on everything their advisers say. They get very different advice from different advisers. And ministers are elected to take the decisions.

Before you mutter that they do, and usually take the wrong ones, consider some of the alternative advice ministers received while also being urged further to delay the new A-levels. The exam boards opposed David Blunkett's plan to allow students to see their marked scripts. Such a scheme worked well in Ireland and Australia. But it would apparently be logistically impossible and cost too much in England. Perhaps I understand now why they were against the idea. But it is far better that this year's marks are out in the open, than that they remained hidden.

Then there were suggestions that there should be no limit to the proportion of marks given to coursework or the number of times students could resit each A-level module. Complaints about this year's A-levels could be multiplied tenfold had ministers not decided differently.

And advice from outside government can be particularly inconsistent. Those commentators who most vociferously attack the A-levels "fiasco" themselves railed against "dumbing down" for years. The OCR exam board probably heeded their advice a bit too closely. Thousands of students had to spend several anxious weeks when they acted upon it. Perhaps it is sometimes as well to keep one's own counsel.

Conor Ryan was David Blunkett's special adviser at the Department for Education and Employment, 1997-2001

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