English language O-level candidates in 1980 used more adventurous words and sentences, and made 50 per cent fewer spelling mistakes than their 1994 GCSE peers, according to a study of 1,199 scripts.
The research, carried out by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, has renewed fears that standards have slipped though the study stresses that it would be unsafe to draw such a conclusion. It says: "Evidence does suggest that candidates awarded a given GCE grade in 1980 were more capable of writing accurately than their counterparts in 1994. But there can be no assurance that this would also hold for the many (potentially compensating) qualities of writing which we were unable to assess in this study (eg content, structure . . .)."
Abler candidates 16 years ago were at least as good at punctuation as their 1994 counterparts and those graded D-E in 1980 were much better. Abler 1980 candidates wrote more error-free sentences than those awarded equivalent grades in 1994, and the gap between the years was greater still for candidates graded D or E.
However, the report warns: "In some respects the candidates awarded D and E grades in 1980 seemed not unlike many of those reaching C and above in more recent years, but the choice between GCE and CSE entry available in 1980 may have given rise to selection effects which exaggerate differences between the years in these lower grades."