It's A-level sneering time again

20th August 2004 at 01:00
From the harrumphing of education pundits, you would think that good grades at A-level were being handed out like Smarties. The summer sport of denigrating exam standards kicks off like clockwork with the Premiership football season - before a single result has even been announced. David Miliband, the schools minister, therefore, made a timely pre-emptive strike this week, pointing out that only around 22,000 or 3.7 per cent of the 600,000 students get three A-levels at grade A.

In the so-called golden days pre-1987, when A-level grading was norm-referenced, we knew where we were. The same proportion passed each year. After criterion referencing was adopted, achievement rates shot up.

Maybe teachers knew their efforts to stretch students that bit more would bring due reward.

But is it also true that standards are dropping? Research by Durham university demonstrates that average-ability A-level candidates were getting grade B for English at the end of the 1990s, whereas 10 years earlier they would have gained a C. Is that grade inflation? Or are schools getting more out of students? Certainly, Ofsted evidence suggests the quality of teaching has never been higher.

But school-bashing in the UK has been a national sport from time immemorial. It is now 120 years since the Chamber of Commerce complained:

"A large majority of candidates are ignorant of the first principles of punctuation." But while the self-appointed experts bleated about ever-declining standards, minimal effort was made to garner real evidence.

Lord Dearing in his 1996 review of 16-19 qualifications helped to draw attention to this issue by demanding measures for "monitoring and safeguarding standards over time".

A wider 10-year review of 14-19 qualifications under Mike Tomlinson aims to establish such a monitoring system. It is into his review that the pundits should be feeding detailed evidence of any decline in standards, rather than simply asserting in the press yet again that schools and examiners have failed the nation.

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