No shame in improved attainment

17th August 2007 at 01:00
In February 1954, under the headline "Illiteracy in GCE", The TES reported the disquieting news that large numbers of English literature candidates could not master even "the most elementary points of reputable English usage". Back then, fewer than 10 per cent of 18-year-olds took A-levels. One can only wonder at the writing skills of the other 90 per cent.

Much of the debate about standards that takes place each summer is lamentable. It is easy to imagine some newspapers dusting off alternative headlines as they awaited this week's A-level results. Which would it be? "A-level results reach record levels again", with the predictable message that standards were, once more, being undermined by grade inflation. Or, worse, would it be: "Fall in A-level results sparks crisis"?

Teachers and examiners should be proud to receive confirmation that more pupils than ever are passing A-levels, achieving higher grades in the process. Standards continue to rise for various reasons. As Ofsted has reported, teaching standards are now better than they have ever been, and likely to improve further given the buoyant state of recruitment in teaching (see page 1).

Another reason for the rising attainment is the vastly improved curriculum and assessment system that now puts greater expectations on pupils. Syllabuses "now demand skills and knowledge which were once the exclusive preserve of the university sector, examined through sophisticated and well-researched assessment techniques", as Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Educational Assessors, said this week (see page 7).

There are many things wrong with our high-stakes assessment system, with too many exams and too little focus on pupils' creativity. We must find a balance between getting the basics right and freeing schools to find innovative ways to improve all pupils' performance, as Geoff Barton argues (see right). But it's time to stop the sterile argument that rising A-level results equals dumbing down of standards. It is worth reflecting that for all the progress in the past half-century, we still manage to help just over one in four 18-year olds to pass the equivalent of three A-levels at grade E or better. How dumb is that? Let's hope that in 2054, a future generation will be able to boast that no one left school without the equivalent of three A-levels.

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