Noughties may be the Golden Age

20th August 2004 at 01:00
To judge by the harrumphing of numerous 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 with the start of the Premiership football season - before even a single result has been announced.

No wonder Wales's education minister Jane Davidson bullishly rebutted their often-snide criticisms and complimented students and schools on this year's record success rate. The critics are unlikely to feel chastened, however.

Their basic argument is that before 1987, when A-level grading was norm-referenced, we knew where we were. The same proportion passed each year. After criterion-referencing was adopted, the rot set in and achievement rates shot up. 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. But does that represent grade inflation? Or is Ms Davidson right in thinking A-level candidates are working harder, and teachers are better at preparing young people for these crucial exams? Certainly, Estyn's inspection evidence suggests the quality of teaching in Welsh schools has never been higher. You would not think that to listen to the critics, but then school-bashing in the UK has been a national sport since 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.

They either insert wrong stops or none whatever."

If the Chamber's modern-day counterparts are to be taken seriously they will have to demonstrate that there has indeed been a fall in standards.

But unfortunately for them the two major studies of standards over time that have been conducted in recent years failed to come up with any conclusive evidence that benchmarks have slipped. The shocking truth may be that this decade, rather than the pre-1987 era, is actually the Golden Age.

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